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Into the Wild: Welcome to Interdisciplinary Honors Field Studies

Oct 14, 2015
Honors 220 summer 2015 group photo
The students of A Natural and Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest, HONORS 220 A, Summer 2015

The Honors Program is preparing to launch an Interdisciplinary Honors Field Studies Program in Summer 2016. Courses will demonstrate "field studies" in its broadest and most inclusive sense, offering place- and community-based learning across a broad range of disciplines. These courses will be purposefully designed to allow students to explore  interdisciplinary education through experience and to examine important connections between community and classroom. Field Studies courses will happen domestically, providing an exciting alternative to international programs that will emphasize student exploration of the diversity and complexity of our own region and country.

We took the opportunity this past summer to pilot the concept with UW Bothell conservation biologist and faculty innovator, Ursula Valdez, who taught “A Natural and Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest,” exactly the kind of class we were looking for. Students from different backgrounds and majors explored in the wildness of Washington, visited cultural institutions, and thought together about biodiversity, natural history and conservation, rural and urban resource use, and approaches to sustainability. Valdez's immersive curriculum emphasized the importance of understanding past and contemporary socio-environmental challenges and solutions in the Pacific Northwest, and empowering students to be activists through developing their power of observation and the use of social media.

Students observing orcas
Ursula Valdez and students observe a pod of Orcas near San Juan Island

We caught some great shots of the explorers in action on a weekend trip to San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor, where students bunked at UW’s beautiful Friday Harbor Labs while taking day trips to learn about the impact of tourism and other industries on the local ecosystem.

Jocelyn Beausire (a third-year Honors student majoring in Music) took a turn at the telescope, observing a pod of resident Orcas, and recorded the experience in her field notes:

“Learning about the Orca whales gave me an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. It made me question my current notions of what conservation means, to society and to me. It also gave me a deeper understanding of how my new environment in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is truly unique, different than any place I’ve lived before, with a unique ecology and native animals to match. Seeing and understanding the specialness of these animals has made me realize how important it is to continue my engagement with the environment, and continue looking for ways to be involved, conserve, and contribute.”

sample collection
A specimen sample tray collected at Alki Beach

Second-year student Preston Gulledge described another trip to Alki Beach in his field notes:

“Seemingly the deeper tide pools had more, larger life, so my partner Chris and I favored the deep pools. At first, the pools seemed dead and lifeless, however, after standing still for a bit and observing, most pools proved to be teaming with life. Many were filled with crabs, shrimp, small fish, and sea anemones. The easiest specimens to locate and collect were the crab and shrimp. We were unable to catch any fish. The crabs were easiest to find after disturbing the water. We then used small nets to catch them and transfer them into trays. We recorded the number and type of species found in 36" x 36" plots, allowing us to measure both the abundance and diversity of the small ecosystems. We kept the species in a glass container for future measurements.

Students at Friday Harbor Labs
Valdez's class included an overview of research at UW's Friday Harbor Laboratories

Finally, as our time at the beach came to an end, we had the privilege of seeing a Great Blue Heron standing on the shoreline, hunting for a meal. It was a truly beautiful and majestic bird that looked just like a dinosaur. Overall, today was a fun learning experience for me as it felt very free form and realistic. Often times it is difficult to ascertain what exactly science looks like when you become so caught up in classrooms and textbooks. I felt like this field study got back to fundamentals that my science education has been lacking in for a long time.”

Stay tuned for more news about our emerging Field Studies program -- we hope you’ll consider joining us as we discover the wonders of our region!