Instead of learning in a classroom this semester, a handful of students at Westminster College have embarked on a three-month-long road trip to learn about the Western United States, the people who live there and the problems they deal with.
“We’re bringing people out into iconic places, reading about them, hearing about them, talking to people that live and work there and getting to know places in some depth while we build a community of passionate, committed, environmentally-minded learners,” said professor Jeff Nichols, one of the trip leaders.
On most days, the group is up at 7 a.m. to cook breakfast and prepare lunches for the road before heading into a park or town to meet with biologists, historians and other guest speakers. After their lessons, the group heads back to camp for dinner and class around the campfire, according to Maria Nappi, a senior environmental science major.
The group is made up of 14 students traveling with two professors and one program assistant.
They plan to tour “iconic sites like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks as well as contentious places like Little Bighorn and Bears Ears.” according to an article on Westminster’s website. At each location, they will meet with “local residents and experts (including Native leaders), writers, scholars, activists, elected officials and government land managers.”
Visiting nine states in just over three months means the students spend a lot of time in the van with the same group of people. Combined with few opportunities to get away, that could cause some problems with the group dynamic, but students said it hasn’t been an issue so far.
“The group has been getting along really well,” said Kara Kornhauser in a message to the Forum. “Everyone is super positive and has a great sense of humor. Getting to experience all of these amazing places with a group of happy and supporting people has made the trip easy to enjoy.”
It hasn’t always been easy though. Sarah Rohde, an environmental studies and civic engagement major, wrote in a message that living out of a van with a bunch of college students was tough at first.
“[One of the challenges was] not being able to shower on a regular basis and sharing a van with people who don’t shower regularly,” Rohde said.
Though the group is often dirty and doesn’t have much alone time, both students and trip leaders said the trip is going well.
“We’re becoming faster and more efficient all the time,” Nichols said. “People are doing a great job of leaping out of bed in the morning with smiles on their faces. Well, sort of,” he added with a chuckle.
For some students, the most difficult part of the trip will be returning to a traditional classroom.
“Coming back to normal school will be hard because learning on this expedition is so place-based and experiential that switching back to a regular class routine will be difficult,” Nappi said in a message to the Forum. “However, there is a lot more free time when you aren’t dealing with the hustle and bustle of traveling and camping.”
Part of the group’s camping routine is sitting around a campfire and talking about the events of the day. Brett Carroll, a Westminster graduate and program assistant for the expedition, came up with the idea of doing a recap each day where the group goes around and shares highlights from the day, Nichols said.
For Kornhauser, one of those highlights has been conversing with subject-matter experts.
“It’s one thing to visit a park, but getting to speak to the chief resource managers of some parks, wolf experts, invasive species specialists and so many more has broadened my understanding of how parks and public lands work,” she said. “It is also amazing to hear the stories that many of these people tell about their experience in the area — especially in regards to climate change and what differences they have personally noticed in their time being there.”
The expedition was designed to give each student a unique learning experience and help build a community dedicated to making a better future for the West, said Brent Olson, in the article on Westminster’s website.
According to Nichols, it seems to be doing exactly that.