Western Field Trip celebrates 40th anniversary
PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – When Dr. Chuck Collins and his students set out to explore the natural wonders of the American West in 1972, they unknowingly sparked a tradition that has continued at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for forty years. More than 750 students later, the Field Geography of the Western United States course – affectionately known as the Western Field Trip – is as beloved now as it was then for its uncanny ability to instill wanderlust and inspire a lifelong interest in the environment. Dedicated colleagues and fellow seekers of knowledge and adventure have honored Dr. Collins, who passed away in 2002, by carrying on the legacy he started.
“Chuck was my mentor,” said Dr. Richard Waugh, UW-Platteville geography professor who has been participating in the Western Field Trip as a faculty member since 1979 and took over the trip from Collins in 1994. “He just had a passion for this kind of thing. He told me once that he had no idea how that first trip was going to turn out, but he did it anyway. I admire the guts it took to do that.”
David M. Allen, 1976 and 1978 UW-Platteville alumnus and southwestern Wisconsin educator who participated in the Western Field Trip four times as an undergraduate student, still remembers the positive impact of that first field experience 39 years ago.
“As a young college student from Livingston, Wis., my eyes were opened to a much bigger world, and I think that is a big part of what a college experience is supposed to do,” said Allen, who traveled with Collins and support faculty members Robert Phillips and Dr. Chester Dziekanowski. “I learned much more than facts about science on that trip. I learned about how to get along with people. The 21 of us shared meals and tents together for three weeks. I learned about how to teach and motivate students. I learned about the power of relationships in learning.”
Four decades later, students are still creating those bonds and leaving their boot and sneaker prints on just about every geological landscape imaginable, from trails in old favorites like Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon to new additions like Channel Islands National Park just off the coast of Southern California.
This year’s group of 26 students, who joined Waugh and geography colleague Alisa Hass on a 5,000-mile journey through 11 states in 21 days, even had the unique experience of contrasting the many wide-open spaces found in the West with the urban majesty of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Much more than sightseeing, the course provides students with a unique outdoor classroom that pairs some of the most stunning visual imagery on the globe with cultural insights and the startlingly real environmental challenges those areas face, such as water shortages and the effects of climate change.
“Every topic you can imagine about the places that are visited is covered, from how the landscape formed to how the land was settled, and the ongoing anthropological issues and environmental effects we have on our landscape,” said Hass, UW-Whitewater science outreach coordinator who also taught at UW-Platteville. “The students not only see the physical characteristics of the landscape, they get to see the course material take form right in front of their eyes.”
Hass said she particularly enjoyed lending her expertise at various stops on the trip, especially at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California.
“As someone who studies fire history, I loved being able to teach about the relationship between fire and sequoias,” said Hass. “Being in the park while lecturing allowed me to be able to point out the unique features of the forests and for the students to see massive fire scars and succession – topics that are hard to visualize in a classroom or textbook.”
Calling the Western Field Trip a great capstone to his collegiate career, Daniel Mumm, a reclamation, environment and conservation major from Bloomington, Wis., who graduated this summer and is now working in New Mexico, said the trip clarified the lessons he had in his classes by giving him real-life examples of the things he learned.
“The most interesting thing for me was learning about the different landscapes and how they were formed,” said Mumm, who said Zion and Sequoia were his favorite spots. “Having been to most of the parks, it was cool to learn how they came to be.”
Emily Christenson, a sophomore geography major from Andover, Minn., said being in a new environment and experiencing classroom topics firsthand not only increased the depth of her learning and her ability to retain that knowledge, but also had other beneficial effects, such as the feeling of accomplishment she had after completing the rigorous Angel’s Landing hike at Zion National Park in Utah.
“After returning from the trip, I saw a change in the way I approached new things and had much more confidence when I previously would have been hesitant,” said Christenson, who was visiting the Western U.S. for the first time. “I have grown significantly, both socially and academically, because of the trip and really enjoyed the experience.”
For more information about the Western Field Trip, contact Waugh at (608) 342-1386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Dr. Richard Waugh, professor, UW-Platteville Geography Program, (608) 342-1386, email@example.com
Written by: Barbara Weinbrenner, communications specialist, UW-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, firstname.lastname@example.org