I am following a van full of Prescott College students down a dusty road, descending from the plains of north-central Arizona toward the cliffs of the Verde River. Prescott College, affectionately known by its students as PC, is my alma mater. It’s been twelve years since I’ve been here, yet the land is immediately familiar, its undulations permanently pressed into my psyche: the rugged piñon and juniper hills; the flat, dry grasslands; the stretch of willows and cottonwoods flanking the river in the distance, a snake of life tucked between the rocky walls of a canyon.
I’m tagging along on professor Bob Ellis’s Concepts of Ecology class. Thursdays are field days, always held in a different location, in order to, as Ellis puts it, “ground truth” theories of ecology. Today’s goal is to understand selective pressures: why do some plants have small, waxy leaves, while others can grow big and broad? Our focus for the morning is plants, but for Ellis, everything is a learning opportunity: when a raptor glides by he stops talking about the grama grass at his feet to say, “Oooh, bird,” then, “What did you notice?” The students point out the long wings, the way the tips of the feathers look like fingers, attributes it seems they’ve discussed before. There’s no move on Ellis’s part to name the bird. That doesn’t seem to be the point. Rather, the point is to get them to notice, to describe, to file away a set of features this animal has that they might recognize in another place or in another bird.
Ellis was my own professor back in 2003 for a course called Wolf Ecology and Management. The course took us to western New Mexico — Mexican gray wolf habitat — and up to Yellowstone. We had conversations with biologists, activists, ranchers, and someone from Wildlife Services. We spent our time listening, absorbing, observing. Ellis’s teaching style was subtle — it felt then, as it does today, more like reflective conversation: What do you notice? What do you think? What do you make of all this information you’re steeped in, and what are you going to do with it?
When we finally get to the Verde River after an hour and a half of driving, we head west along a set of railroad tracks. The students are the kind the school tends to attract — rugged, unshaven, wearing sturdy hiking boots or river sandals. They talk about organic gardening and rock climbing, and are wisely equipped with sunscreen and plenty of water. Ellis resembles a character out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? with his tattered straw hat patched together with purple, white, and red duct tape; his button-down shirt stained pink from using it to wipe his dry erase board; and his odd habit of referring to his students as “brothers and sisters of the pale forest.”
We descend into a canyon and set up class on a sandy beach where a stand of willows opens to accommodate us. The river pauses in a deep pool, bordered on the opposite side by an overhanging cliff. “Today what we’re going to attempt to do is take moisture as a gradient,” he says, pointing to the river. “It’s probably wetter over there. We move up slope.” He then points to the junipers clinging atop a rock wall. “It’s probably drier.” And so what they’re going to try and ground truth today, he says, is selective adaptation in dry versus wet conditions, as described in the textbook. He breaks the students up into groups, explaining how to conduct a quadrant transect, how to identify characteristics of leaves, stems, and growing habits. He says that if they don’t know the plant they should ask, and later he apologizes for being too “authoritarian.” For now, the idea is simply to look at selective adaptations, regardless of whether or not the students know the species.
As the groups get to work, Ellis pauses to remind them of one last thing: “Now, I think we all realize that our reptilian friends have been awakened, and we are well within the range of the Mojave rattler.” He gestures up toward the dry rocks of the canyon wall. He says “Mojarve” instead of “Mojave.” “And brothers and sisters of the pale forest, the Mojarve has two kinds of venom. So, if you get bit, you gonna die.” Some of the students look at one another, gasping a little, but mostly smiling. There is concern, but this isn’t news to most of them. Ellis laughs and quickly follows up — “Not really. But it ain’t good!” He tells them to be careful in the uplands. “It’s that time of the morning when they’re getting warm enough to bestir themselves.”
With that, the students return to their tasks, taking out their measuring tapes and counting off meters, peering closely at the dried leftover leaves of shrubs and trees eking out a living on the canyon floor.
This type of class is familiar to me — in fact, it represents the bulk of my educational experience as an undergraduate student. I, too, learned the concepts of ecology by observing them, by “ground truthing” them out there, on the ground. But twelve years later — including two rounds of graduate school and three years as a professor at a mid-sized state university — Bob Ellis’s class seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Perhaps it’s the locale, seemingly exotic after the gray blur of the Northeast winter — but I just cannot, for the life of me, imagine my own students in this kind of learning environment. My head spins thinking about the material I have to cover in each hour-and-twenty-minute-long period. I think of the one warm day when I brought my students out to have class on the lawn, how a clingy bee and scantily clad sorority sisters sunning themselves nearby occupied much of the group’s attention.
I teach a required freshman-year writing course, and the students I get each spring are almost all biology majors. In their entire four years as biology majors, there are no courses that require them to leave the walls of the university. They might have an opportunity to take an environmental-themed course, or they may choose an elective that will bring them out of doors, but otherwise, their curriculum is comprised of large lectures and labs held inside.
My bio students are bright. They are, in general, a curious and engaged group. Since so many are on the pre-med track, they’re also interested in good grades. They come to class having finished the assigned reading for the day and eager to participate, and that makes my work a little more enjoyable. Before and after class, however, their conversation is consistently filled with talk of that week’s chemistry quiz, with the most recent lab exercise, with which statistics professors are grading on a curve this semester. They tell me point blank that they prioritize those classes over mine. I don’t take it personally, and I’m really not surprised — they’re here to do what they need to do to get into medical school, or to get good, well-paying jobs.
I admire my students for taking on such challenges, for wanting to pursue a difficult track. They are driven and motivated, and when I ask them why they want to be doctors they have good stories: a sibling with a disability, a doctor who changed their life, a genetic blood disorder that runs in their family back in the Philippines. Their motivation comes from real and palpable experiences, and yet they soon realize their education contains little of that energy. The next several years are already determined, their course load coded, their requirements accounted for, the bulk of knowledge that they supposedly need for their futures ready to be deposited into their minds. If they do everything according to plan, they get to move to the next step.
This path of education — typical for most college students — reminds me of the ideas of radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. “Education is suffering from narration sickness,” he wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. The narrative of modern-day education, he said, is that the educator is the guiding subject, who feeds information to the passive, listening object — the student. There is no dialogue, just a one-way flow of information that serves “to minimize or annul the students’ creative power,” making them into “manageable, adaptable beings” whose “credulity serves the interests of the oppressors.” Some educators would argue that Freire’s ideas are outdated now. And I can’t fully buy into Freire’s belief that such a form of education only serves to make students into unthinking automatons fit to numbly do society’s grunt work — I genuinely feel our nation’s universities are doing what they can to prepare young people for an increasingly competitive workforce — but what I see in the education my students are receiving is a lack of opportunity to “critically consider reality,” or to consider “the problems of human beings in their relations with the world.” All of these are tenets of what Freire called a “problem-posing” education, in which teachers relinquish authority and enter into real communication with the people they’re teaching.
Replacing the standard curriculum with something more experiential “sounds nice,” my students tell me — but they don’t think it’s realistic. Many of them are lower-middle class, some from below the poverty line; they are often first-generation immigrants and first-generation college students. The threat of college debt holds much more sway than the lure of exploration, of the chance to follow their curiosity. They are practical, and who can fault them for that?
But I spend an extravagant amount of time worrying about my students’ souls. I worry that our education system is not engaging them as it could, and that that lack of engagement isn’t just holding back a “nice” experience — it’s not preparing them to be careful thinkers in an unpredictable world. Science students, in any field, should spend time out in the world at some point in their formal learning. All students should, if we embrace what educational philosophers — those who’ve come before and after Freire — consider a key element of education: a chance to observe, to be curious, to ask questions. I don’t have the sense that my students get that chance in the lecture hall, reading PowerPoint slides. As we train the next generation of scientists, it seems to me that we’re not providing them with ample opportunity to develop a sense of wonder or to build a set of skills that will help them think through the complexities of reality— skills that no textbook-derived information can replace.
It’s experience in its purest form that seems to be missing, for my students and for many college students in the United States — exposure to the world, whether it’s the wilderness, a city neighborhood, or a polluted stream trickling through campus. What’s increasingly lost is the chance to be brought out into the huge, wild mess of it and be asked, “So, what do you make of all this?”
Classes like Bob Ellis’s ecology class were mandatory for students, at least at the primary level, until the early twentieth century. From 1890 to World War I, the nature-study movement held a strong influence in American education. “At one point, twenty-one states mandated nature study curricula,” writes environmental historian Maril Hazlett. Educators believed that cultivating students’ awareness of their natural surroundings was essential. But it wasn’t just about information — educators also believed that exposure to nature sparked creativity and invited analytical thinking — skills that were seen as valuable for future studies in science. Naturalists of the era like John Burroughs felt that science alone could be cold and impersonal, and that it needed sentiment, fostered by close observation of the natural world, to give it balance.
Eventually, the idea that sentiment could be a part of science started to fade. A divide in the education community grew — the more “rigorous” practice of computation and analysis outweighing the “lighter” work of observation. “Hard” science was seen as masculine while nature study was seen as “feminine,” and in the ruling sexist regime of the era (and, arguably, of ours today), what wasn’t seen as hard and rigorous was looked down upon and slowly sloughed from the general curriculum. A 2015 article in the United Kingdom’s Times Higher Education notes that in the 1950s, Bloom’s Taxonomy (named for educationalist Benjamin Bloom) became a mainstay in conventional science education, placing skills such as identifying, recognizing, and naming in an inferior position to more abstract skills like critical thinking and analysis. Identification work started to be seen as “too simplistic.” Today, the article reports, “It is estimated that each year there are fewer than 10 UK graduates who are proficient enough in field identification skills to be employable.”
A group of practicing field biologists and educators observed a similar trend in the United States. In a 2011 issue of BioScience, the group reported that in the 1950s, many universities required natural history courses as part of the biology degree. Today, however, “the majority of universities and colleges in the United States have no natural history requirements for a degree in biology, and the emphasis on natural history in introductory biology texts has dropped by 40% over the past 50 years.” This decline, they write, coincides with the rise of molecular, theoretical, and experimental biology.
“What’s popular in science can’t be divorced from what’s fundable in science,” Tom Fleischner, another former teacher of mine at Prescott College, recently told me. Since the 1950s, he said, science’s focus has been on the space race, then on gene mapping and other genetic research — which has been incredibly exciting, but which “took focus away from the basic field practice of coming to learn our neighbors, you might say, and understand the places where we live.” He cited the Handbook of Nature Study as part of teacher training programs for North American educators in the early twentieth century. After World War II, he said, nature study was deemed quaint, a stigma that still holds today. (A professor of natural history and biology, Fleischner recently convened a group of science educators from around the country to address the apparent decline in field practice. They hope to draw up guidelines for universities with the goal of making these kinds of courses easily implemented once again.)
Part of the sea change in the way field studies are regarded is due to what’s happened, gradually, as faculty members retire. When field-biology professors leave the university, they tend to be are replaced not by field biologists, but by molecular and cell biologists, or those who teach genomics, reflecting the half-century shift in the sort of science North America tends to favor. Some newer professors might come in with plans for immersive, experiential teaching, said Gretchen Gerrish, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, but as soon as they take on more administrative tasks, they become pressed for time, and the first thing to go, for time’s sake, is the field component of their classes. Similarly, as universities cut personnel and seek ways to save money, assistants are dropped and logistical tasks are assigned to the instructors. Harry Greene, who teaches ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, calls this “bureaucratic overburden.” He says, “In some other areas of science you might have assistants that take care of these sorts of things for you. I generalize that for most field biologists we don’t have any assistants at all. We do all the paperwork, all the permits, all the permissions.” As a result, many teachers just stop trying.
Professors themselves could also be partly responsible for this trend. Eileen Lacey, a biologist at University of California, Berkeley, has observed that when it comes to field courses, there has been “a change in how they are perceived and valued.” She feels that too many instructors “kowtow” to these larger cultural changes and “cater to the students as clientele.” Rather than insist on the importance of immersive studies, educators bend to students’ ideas about what they think they need to learn.
This sort of kowtowing makes sense, but it’s also troubling. Where, in the midst of our nation’s specialization, digitization, and science-technology-engineering-math frenzy is there room for nature? In this quest to acquire more and more raw information, how does a student learn to pause and ask questions? To make observations and draw meaningful conclusions? It’s easy to dismiss such unquantifiable goals — but without this kind of experiential education, where will we get our breakthrough scientists, those who make significant contributions to how we understand the world not because they retain a plethora of textbook facts — many people can memorize — but because they know how to put the pieces together?
The Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, was first published in 1911. It was written for educators — it’s nearly nine-hundred pages long — and in it Comstock asserted that the purpose of nature study is not to memorize facts about the natural world, but to teach children to create for themselves a foundation of understanding about how the world works. Nature study also reduced the need for discipline — students needn’t be confined to their seats all day — and even lessened the fatigue and stress of teachers themselves.
Comstock’s theories were embraced by a schoolteacher of the era, Maria Carson, mother of writer and biologist Rachel Carson — whose Silent Spring sparked the environmental movement. Maria was Rachel’s tutor of the natural world. She taught her daughter how to identify the local birds, and the two walked their Pennsylvania farm, observing the growth of plants and animals in its woods and surrounding fields. Along with a love of nature, she fostered in Rachel a love for writing and the interdisciplinary practice of nature study.
Carson was an impressive scholar from the very start of her college education; it’s hard to dismiss the idea that her grounding in close observation of the natural world played an integral role in her intellectual development. It’s hard to believe that the connections Carson makes in Silent Spring don’t owe something to the immersive education her mother gave her. In true nature-study fashion, Silent Spring is a culmination of research and reflection, science and spirit, resulting in what her admirers called her “poetic” writing style and what her critics decried as “emotional” and “naïve” — a sexist response typical of the era, vestiges of which are still alive in today’s scientific culture.
When Rachel Carson adopted her great-nephew Roger later in life, she in turn gave him a nature study education, just as Maria had given her. In an article written for a 1956 issue of Woman’s Home Companion titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” Carson calls upon her readers — assumed to be housewives and mothers — to find time to wander outside with their children. Carson recounts her evenings taking Roger down to the shore to search for nocturnal ghost crabs, “those sand colored, fleet-legged beings whom Roger had sometimes glimpsed briefly on the beaches in daytime.” She writes of Roger’s “baby excitement” during the search, his ease in the darkness, his seeming comfort with the wind and the roaring surf. She defines these trips not as drills or even as educational, but as being in “the spirit of two friends on an expedition of exciting discovery.” Between the advertisements for Best Foods Mayonnaise and Shulton Dusting Powder (where a lounging woman presses a large dusting puff to her exposed neck), Carson entreats the reader to consider the wish she would ask of a good fairy had she one to make: “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Imagine: you have been studying marine invertebrates in the laboratory. Your professor has shown you videos of bioluminescence; you understand the chemical reaction that allows an organism to glow in the dark. But then you are on your first trip to Belize, wading into a lagoon at night and watching the tar-black sea illuminate around your body, the swish of your hand through water leaving a blaze of blue stars that twinkle momentarily and go dark again. You might be moved to tears, as a student of Gretchen Gerrish’s was.
Imagine never having stepped on dirt before, like many of Bobby Espinoza’s students at California State University, Northridge, who hail from the greater Los Angeles area, and who show up to their first field excursion with Samsonite suitcases and inadequate footwear. They’re used to going to the mall on the weekend, not into the woods.
Imagine a morning like the morning Steve Trombulak took his students to Middlebury College’s bird-banding station: the mist was rising and through the fog they saw a red fox leap for its morning prey; then the beavers started slapping their tails in the water, and, as if on cue, a flock of great blue herons flew right over their heads. You might be compelled to exclaim — unironically, as Trombulak insists his student did — “Wow, this is better than Discovery Channel!”
Moments like these are transformational.
And this transformation teaches empathy. Students become less absorbed in themselves and start paying attention to the world around them. They become aware of other beings, of their own impacts. It teaches autonomy, too. Harry Greene, the Cornell ecologist, likes to talk about his students during their first field sojourn. At first “they bitch and moan about having to ID these little brown birds and about the fact it’s wet.” But by the end of the semester they’re seasoned naturalists who “becalm their fellow students in order to see the rattlesnake behind a rock, or noose a fence lizard to see if it’s a female or a male.”
There’s something else, too, something that can’t be replicated in a classroom setting: the spontaneity of the field, of never knowing what might happen. Teacher and student are there together, looking for the same thing, and who knows who will see what. It’s a true example of Freire’s problem-solving style of education: the teacher has made a moment possible, has led the student into the world, but the situation is in everyone’s hands. No matter what happens next, the students become “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher,” as Freire would put it.
On an Alaska field course I took, we camped in the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle. We were learning about environmental policy. It was 2001, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was under threat of being opened to oil drilling. We read and learned about the politics of natural-resource management, but in between those talks the land was mine to explore. It was raw, open, difficult terrain. Over a few days, though, it revealed to me some of its surprises: the way a ptarmigan can be right at your feet and you never see it until it’s flushing up in a flurry of feathers; the way caribou antlers, covered in plush moss, emerge from the tundra like desperate, lonely trees — vestiges of a great migration.
I still have those notebooks, have even used them in recent years for essays I’ve written, going back to verify what I remember. What is it like to scramble up a little unnamed peak and see the Arctic Ocean, a gray and frothy line in the distance, lapping at the land? That’s something I’m not going to find in any book — except my own. We didn’t see any rigs out there, ready to drill into the tundra, but we put the larger story in context. Before that class, ANWR was just something I’d heard thrown around in the media; after the class, the tundra it protected was a terrain that I had ground truthed.
Professors of field biology will wax passionately about how field-study experiences are not just significant for the next generation of biologists, but for the next generation of human beings. Eileen Lacey, from Berkeley, has students like mine, on the prehealth track, who also never have to step outside the walls of the university during their four years of education. When she gets them in a behavioral-ecology class, she presents them with a challenge: “If you think about almost any problem facing humans today,” she says, “it somehow ties back to how we interact with our environment.” She encourages her students to pick an emerging disease from throughout the world. We can try to treat its symptoms, she explains, but to be proactive we need to “understand the ecology of the disease; we need to understand the vectors, how it’s spread, where it came from. And all of that immediately takes us back to the natural world. I challenge the students to name a problem like that that doesn’t take you back to the natural world.”
Humility, an understanding of the world around you, a sense of agency, the ability to form hypotheses based on observations, understanding complexity — these are the qualities educators want all students to have, not just scientists. These modes of thinking inform the work of our lawyers, educators, librarians; they shape the moral character of our nation’s voters, our neighbors, our citizens. Essentially, field experiences don’t just make good scientists, they make good people. And if that isn’t a worthy goal of education, well, then what is?
At the Verde River, Bob Ellis and I talk over lunch while the students take a break. We discuss Prescott College’s rocky financial status, how enrollment is down — a repercussion of larger trends in education. Ellis is worried. “These are my people,” he says, gesturing to his students. He asks me about my teaching, and I tell him about my struggles, how I feel like I can’t really reach my students, how sometimes I feel close, like I’ve got them on the brink of true discovery, but how often that moment slips from my grasp. I tell him I can see their eyes glaze over, their disappointment every time I have to reroute a spontaneous moment back to the curriculum. Maybe they don’t value my class as much as chemistry or statistics, but I can see that they appreciate those moments when we really get down to what we believe and why, how those moments feel real in a way the other moments — when I write on the board or when I give a lecture — don’t.
Ellis launches into a story. While leading a kayaking course on the Green River, in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, one afternoon after setting camp, he and a student decided to run to the top of a canyon. There was just enough light. When they made it to the top, they turned to see the setting sun send a line of cottonwoods aglow. A light rain was falling, making the leaves on the ground glitter, wet and shiny in the sun. The student turned to Ellis and asked, “Bob, what role does beauty have in education?”
Stunned, Ellis didn’t really know how to answer — not even sure if the student was looking for an answer or was rather “just naming something that seemed vital, maybe fundamental and overlooked,” as Ellis later wrote in an essay. Ellis and I talk about beauty for a moment, what it means, how you know as a teacher when you’ve located it. It’s what I feel is lacking in my own teaching experience, and it’s what he thinks is at stake in the struggles Prescott College is facing. What he feels is what so many science educators across the nation feel: there is something vital at risk of being lost. It’s not just our ability to name plants and birds, to “know our neighbors,” as significant as that might be, but the opportunity to question and grow, to be moved, to be momentarily stunned — or flummoxed — by something you couldn’t have anticipated.
As we talk, students swim or lounge on the sand, dipping their feet into the deep pool of the river below the willows. Nearby a canyon wren’s descending whistle echoes off the rocks, and swallows flit between crevices along the cliff face. Nobody sees a Mojave rattler, but I don’t think they’ve forgotten about the possibility. In fact, I’m willing to bet more of them are thinking about snakes in the brush than about the selective adaptations of leaves — and that seems okay. It seems clear that many of these students will go on to study ecology, that soon they’ll be conducting vegetation transects for their own research projects. And by then, they’ll be like Harry Greene’s seasoned naturalists, comfortable in the field. They’ll know well enough to keep an eye on those sun-warmed rocks, to look closely for those reptilian creatures that have, in this too warm of a winter, already begun to bestir themselves.