Learning at High Lonesome

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Feb. 21, 2013

Learning at High Lonesome

Colorado ranch ideal setting for interdisciplinary study

Trinity University Professor of Anthropology Richard Reed and student Carina Hiscock explore a long-deserted log cabin from the turn of the 20th century
Professor of Anthropology Richard Reed and student Carina Hiscock explore a long-deserted log cabin from the turn of the 20th century

For two action-packed weeks last July, 10 Trinity University students and  five faculty camped on a ranch at the western slope of the Rocky Mountains near Grand Junction, Colo., where they studied nature  from  multiple perspectives.

The camp was at the high end of a long valley called Book Cliffs on the High Lonesome ranch owned by Paul Vahldiek and Trinity Trustee Lissa Walls Vahldiek '80. The class, an environmental studies course titled "Landscape in Space and Time," was taught by faculty members from different disciplines: Richard Reed, sociology and anthropology; Elizabeth Ward, art and art history; Kathleen Surpless, geosciences; Kelly Lyons, biology; and Greg Hazelton, an environmental fellow from the Associated Colleges of the South, who teaches at Trinity.

"The goal of the course was to give students a well-rounded introduction to environmental studies," says Reed, who helped organize the class. The course combined the usual elements found in an environmental science class, such as biology, chemistry, and geosciences, but also added issues found in the social sciences such as water policy and environmental justice. Plus, students and faculty used art and writing to examine their relationship to the land.

Trinity University students drawing stratigraphy
Students drawing stratigraphy

"When an interdisciplinary course works, students come to a richer understanding about how the world works. This helps to enhance the development of their personal perspectives and has the potential to make them better thinkers overall," explains Surpless. "In this course, students who were more oriented toward the sciences, political science, or anthropology gained a better understanding of the power of personal expression, and the more creative-driven students gained an appreciation for the power of understanding natural systems and what this can bring to the creative process."

Classes began early in the mornings and included field trips around the ranch and visits to particular geological formations.  Lessons featured research on animal habitats along river systems as well as information on the cultural history and history of land use of the area.

Afternoons were reserved for reflection, and participants spent the time reading, writing, and creating artwork. Dinner preparation was a shared activity followed by discussions on environmental literature.

Katie Banick, a senior from Houston, was drawn to the class for the stunning location and the line-up of professors. Among her most memorable occurrences: exploring the ranch with professor Lyons and encountering a large herd of elk, and birding several times with professor Ward.  Banick also enjoyed the unique interdisciplinary nature of the course. "The various perspectives became very cohesive to me as the weeks progressed," she says.

A highlight of the course was time spent with an animal tracker from the High Lonesome ranch. "He wanted to teach us about his work and made us very aware that he was working with living creatures," says Carina Hiscock, a sophomore from Abilene. "He told us to minimize our footprints and try not to disturb the area.  There was an element of danger as we were tracking the path a mountain lion had made only hours before." The group followed the tracker all the way to the site of a recent kill by the lion.

At the end of the two-week stay, faculty members say they had learned as much from the experience as the students. "We also made artwork and developed written pieces," says Surpless. "I think that this was a critical part of the course that helped to break down barriers between teachers and students as well as across disciplines.  I personally wrote some really terrible poetry, but I had a terrific time doing it!"

Russell Guerrero '83