Learning in the Great Outdoors

Published online: Apr 06, 2020 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Catherine Black
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Wading in a stream, scrambling over lava rock, snowshoeing and cross country skiing might sound like recreational opportunities, but for students in Dr. Eliezer Schwarz’s Ecology course at Idaho State University in Idaho Falls, they are an integral part of learning science. 

One field trip in September 2019 had students wading through streams in the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area east of Idaho Falls. Students compared stream insect diversity and water quality characteristics for an area of Tex Creek habitat that burned extensively in the Henry’s Creek Fire in 2016 and nearby Bull Creek, which was not affected by the fire. 

“By venturing outside, students learn to connect concepts in the classroom to real life,” shared Dr. Schwarz. “The psychological impact of discovering something for themselves is incredible. You can mention it in the classroom and it doesn’t capture them, but then when they see if for themselves in nature, it suddenly becomes fascinating.”

On another field trip, students visited the lava rock hiking trail in Hell’s Half Acre west of Idaho Falls. They developed their own hypothesis to explain the distribution of plants on the lava flow. Then they designed and carried out an experiment to test that hypothesis. Some students in Dr. Schwarz’s class compared plant diversity on peaks and valleys of the lava flow. Others measured sagebrush density on north and south facing slopes. 

“I didn’t expect to enjoy Ecology as much as I did,” said Allie Lords, a pre-med student. “Because of the hands-on learning opportunities, it was one of my favorite classes.”

As a capstone to the Ecology course, students studied winter Ecology on a field trip to Harriman State Park in December 2019. This year, students completed the trip on snowshoes, although previous years have introduced students to cross-country skiing. Students were divided into teams to complete an Ecology Scavenger Hunt. They were challenged to find winter examples of all of the ecological concepts they learned during the semester. 

Many of this year’s students enjoyed learning outdoors so much that they have chosen to continue their interest by starting a student horticulture club at ISU, with Dr. Schwarz as faculty advisor. Dr. Schwarz researches the biochemistry of photosynthesis and the way that plants respond to changing environmental conditions to allocate light energy efficiently while avoiding damage from excess sunlight. He is excited to foster the love of plants in his students. 

The horticulture club has plans to develop an outdoor garden for the ISU campus in Idaho Falls, and also to go on outings to observe how plants are distributed in natural settings. For more information visit www.isu.edu.



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