Field Trips

by Ellen BurtnerRemember those field trips you used to take to the zoo in elementary school? Yeah. Like everything else, the college version is so much cooler.

Feel like taking an overnight trip on your own private beach, looking at endangered species and going kayaking? I thought so. Meet: the awesome professors of Southwestern’s Environmental Studies Program.

“I’m an ecologist, and ecology happens in all environments,” said Dr. Romi Burks of various field trips. “In ecology, part of it is common sense when you’re looking at the text, but the text is not the same as observing it in real life.”
It’s this real life experiential work where many feel the students benefit the most.

The most recent adventure was one taken by Dr. Jinelle Sperry and Dr. Gavin Van Horn to Port Aransas, which boasts itself as one of the most popular vacation spots in Texas. Interested in studying the endangered Whooping Crane, a troop of nearly 30 students traveled for an overnight stay to the Port Aransas Wildlife Refuge.

“We can go and see the strengths and weaknesses of the conservation efforts that are happening,” said junior and Animal Behavior major Morgan Mingle. “We saw probably at least six whooping cranes, and there’s only about 300 left in the world, so we saw like…2% of the whooping cranes left in the world. It was awesome.”

It’s these opportunities that make the field trip such a unique opportunity.

“The only wild reproducing self-viable population is here in Texas,” Dr. Sperry said of the cranes. “We drove down there, immediately got on a boat, and went on a three hour tour of the bay. We saw over 35 species of birds, and we saw a Peregrine Falcon fighting with a White Tailed Hawk over a dead duck. We saw bottle nosed dolphins right beside our boat, and we camped at the Wildlife Refuge there. It’s supposed to be a boy scouts camp, but they let us stay there. We had our own little private beach at the same time we were camping in the woods.”

What makes the field trips worth the cost and effort for both faculty and students?

“There’s a contextual element that you simply can’t replace in content,” said Dr. Burks.

The field trips beat the hell out of sitting in a classroom all day.

“It’s really worth it because particularly when you’re trying to grasp and idea and you don’t actually see the reality of it. You can get an awful lot out of the reading, but I think it just adds another component that makes the reading and discussions have more meaning,” said Dr. Hobgood-Oster.

“For my course, you could actually see the species that we’re talking about, which makes a big difference,” said Dr. Sperry.

“There’s a big difference between showing a picture up on a PowerPoint and actually being out on a boat. I think that’s a big part of it. And I think it’s also nice to get other people’s perspectives. The boat captain talked a lot about wildlife conservation, and about the species we were seeing. The Port Aransas employee talked a lot about conservation. So, these are totally different perspectives. You get it from a boat captain, you get it from a federal employee. They undoubtedly have a different perspective than I do, so it’s nice to have students here it from every angle,” said Dr. Sperry.

It takes extensive collaborative effort among administration, staff and students to pull together some of the larger-scale overnight trips that frequently occur.

“We just had a wonderful time,” said Dr. Sperry.

“What’s nice about Southwestern is that for these overnight trips, we got all of the equipment from SIRA. They are incredible in terms of the amount of equipment that they have. They had enough to outfit our entire group of 26 people. It’s really nice that we have that resource here on campus and that they’re willing to loan in out for field trips like that. The gear would be way too expensive for people to purchase on their own, so it’s really the only way that we could have done it.”

“I think that the type of trip we actually did is perfect for conservation type things, no matter what the degree is, because you really get to see what’s happening and talk to people that are involved from the different perspectives,” said Mingle. “So you can’t just be like, ‘We need to get rid of dams because dams kill wildlife habitat when there’s people starving and need the energy from the dams.’ You can’t fully read about all that in a text book.”

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