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Taking it outside

It was not your typical quiz.

Instead of sitting in a quiet classroom hunched over desks, students stood in Revery Prairie on Middle Campus to test their knowledge of different plants. Fielding questions from Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Glenn Adelson, they bent over flowers to count stamens and examine leaves as a hot wind rattled quiz sheets secured to clipboards. The distracting sounds of summer campers singing “Happy Birthday” and a truck beeping in reverse blared in the background.

But then, Summer Flora of the Western Great Lakes was not your typical class. Throughout the four-week environmental studies course held in June, students learned outside—rain or shine—in a classroom of forests, prairies, dunes, savannahs, bogs, ravines, wetlands, and other natural areas that spanned from the Lake Forest College campus to the Indiana Dunes to Door County, Wisconsin. As they studied the ecology, evolution, and identification of about 150 plants that grow in the western Lake Michigan region, they also had a unique learning experience that came with taking a field class.

“Students learn very differently when they’re in a place that is different from their standard learning environment,” Adelson said. “It helps them to see the same concept that they might learn in a classroom or a lecture or reading a book. That concept becomes deeply enriched by seeing it in a completely different way through different eyes.”

Nearly all of the College’s environmental studies classes incorporate fieldwork while four courses—including Spring Flora of the Western Great Lakes, Lake Forestry, and Environmental Psychology, along with this one—are almost always held in the field, underscoring the department’s belief that field classes are an effective format for learning about different environments.

“A field class helps because you can see the environment that each plant is in,” said Ada Okoli ’17, an environmental studies major who could not imagine learning the material online or in a classroom. “You might be in a wetland or in sand dunes, so as you’re walking, it’s wet or sandy. Because of that, I can learn about the environment much better than if I was in a classroom.”

Observational skills

After the quiz, Adelson led the class to a small patch of what looked like clover. “We’re going to learn about one of the most common misconceptions in the world,” he said.

Stooping down, he started asking rapid-fire questions about the characteristics of the heart-shaped leaves and small protruding yellow flower while students leaned in and applied their knowledge from the class. As this back-and-forth exchange generated a stream of clues about the plant’s identity—it’s herbaceous with compound leaves and an open flower but has a subtlely different leaf structure than a clover—Adelson weaved in interesting tidbits about the cloverleaf as the image of the highway interchange and its likeness to the Irish shamrock. Finally, after several minutes of discussion, he made the reveal. “This is not a clover, but the common sorrel,” he said, popping the weed into his mouth and picking some for students to try. “It makes a great salad green, too.”

When students are able to use their senses and learn about the plants outside of the traditional classroom, they remember information better and gain a deeper connection to the material, which strengthens the learning process. “I learn more because it’s a hands-on class,” said Brian Gumban ’19, a biology major. “You learn a lot by looking at plants and taking them apart. I have also started to notice plants more. Before I didn’t pay attention, but now I can identify them.”

Students also gain close observational skills that will help them in their daily  lives, Adelson said. “We go through life looking but not seeing,” he said. “Stopping and moving slowly and really seeing can be transferred to other modes of learning and ways of interacting with the world.”

A field class in the outdoors is not without challenges. Along with the textbook, Field Manual of Michigan Flora, essential items listed on the syllabus include sunscreen, insect repellent, and protective clothing that can withstand water and thorny shrubs. With unpredictable weather in classes that last several hours to overnight camping trips, it can be physically demanding to be outside for long periods of time.

But students taking this class could see little alternative for this kind of course. As the group walked from Revery Prairie to the edge of the ravines near the library, where they would find shade from the hot sun along with the snowberry and bittersweet nightshade plants, Kristian Jarvis ’17, a finance major, motioned toward Middle Campus. “This is much better than being stuck in those tall buildings over there,” he said. “There is no better way to learn about plants.”

— Lindsay Beller