What is the most memorable class you’ve ever taken? It was likely taught by a brilliant and inspirational teacher expounding upon a fascinating subject full of nuance and complexity. But did that class also make you feel awe, exhaustion, and a little fear? Did it soak you to the bone?
For the past two years I’ve had the privilege of guiding for UC Davis’ Grand Canyon Class. Formally known as Ecogeomorphology, which to paraphrase Truman Young (2016 professor of record), means we talk about ecology and geology and pretend they are the same thing. But what’s unique about this class is that our lessons are given while seated upon a raft, hiking through eons of geologic history, or relaxing on the beach at the end of a long day. During this 17-day rafting trip down the Colorado River, graduate students, faculty, and river rats teach one another about the billions of years of geology that shaped the Grand Canyon, the millions of years evolution spent on its endemic species, and the dozens of years humans have endeavored to change all that. The class provides us with a chance to learn within and beyond our chosen disciplines while in a beautiful place, but it also gives us much more.
There are increasingly few places where we are forced to truly live in the moment and in a place. On a raft on the Colorado is one of these rare places. Cell phones, the Internet, and even snail mail (remember that?) are not options here. And thank God. Without these distractions you must focus on what’s in front of you, be it a talk on the loveably hideous Humpback Chub, avoiding the hole at Lava Falls, or the acoustic guitar playing softly below towering canyon walls. With this focus comes enhanced experience and a solidity of memory.
The UC Davis Grand Canyon class provides unique experiences for dozens of graduate students each year and I’m convinced it’s a highlight of each of their graduate carriers. While the Colorado River is a special part of my personal experience, it and this class are not alone in their ability to inspire students and scientists. Other examples of successful experiential learning programs are the Semester in the West at Whitman College (my alma mater), The Super Course at UC Santa Cruz, and a course once taught by our own Casey Peters called Natural History of California. While the likelihood of being thrown into a freezing river during one of these courses is regrettably low, they all allow for invaluable experiences that a typical class cannot offer. Additionally, they can inspire an increased personal connection with nature, and encourage students to take an active role in improving humanity’s relationship with the natural world. We should promote the continuation and expansion of such field courses or any analogous efforts that get us out from behind a desk and into the wilderness.
Thanks for reading. Now go outside!
Other links of potential interest:
- An amazing website documenting the 2016 class and an earlier post and photos by Kat Kerlin and Joe Proudman.
- A Capital Public Radio story about the 2016 class.
- The Ecogeomorphology courses over the years.
- A video about the Grand Canyon that's currently touring with the Banff Film Festival.
- More posts by this author
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