Wading into the unknown: immersive travel experiences in nature by Dan Shustack, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Reagan Smith

 

“Alright, it’s 10:00 am. Time to go!  Is everyone here?  One , two, three, four…. eight, nine, ten… uh, where is Will?  Has anyone seen Will?  He’s not still sleeping is he? Is he at the bathroom?”

“Uh, I think I saw him walking away from camp earlier this morning.”

“When was that?”

“Um, it was early, before most people were up.”

“Oh, mmmm, I thought he was coming with us, but ok. Well, let’s get in the vans and we’ll go.”

“What about Will?”

“Maybe he changed his mind about coming on the walk this morning. Anyway, we will pick him up back at our camp site after our walk. Our scheduled meeting with the park biologist isn’t for a couple hours, and we’ll pick him up before then.  But, for now, let’s go for that walk down the Peavine Trail and check out the slough for alligators and birds.”   

Will is just one of the students who I’ve taken on multi-day, off-campus excursions to the Everglades and south Florida.  Since 2012, I’ve lead four trips with college classes to this region so different from the New England forests of western Massachusetts where our small, residential college campus is found.  While the focus of the trip is academic, and students receive three college credits for completing the course, there is so much more involved in planning and leading a travel-based course versus a traditional on-campus class or even one with weekly 3-hour field trips.  The 24 hour-a-day experience over ~10 days creates a set of particular logistical challenges for the instructor, but the pay-off is the unique opportunities and experiential learning afforded to students that is just not possible in any other way.  Leading these trips has been educational for me as well.  I’ve learned, particularly through trial and error and through feedback from students, about the ways students learn, process, reflect, and engage with these travel experiences.  I don’t think I’ve found the perfect “formula” yet, but I think I’ve zeroed in on some successful and worthwhile strategies that others who are considering leading similar field-based, environmentally immersive experiences might find useful or adaptable to one’s own situation.  For other readers, I hope this yarn is amusing.

I was a little concerned that no one seemed to know where Will was at the moment. However, his absence was still within acceptable parameters and, at least to me, it was a little expected at this point.  So, there wasn’t really anything that caused me to be seriously concerned.  We had a meeting time scheduled with the park biologist1 later that morning; everyone was supposed to be there for that.  However, this early morning activity, the walk down the Peavine Trail, was an optional activity.  The previous couple of days had been really long and we had a late night the day before, arriving well after dark at our current campsite in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.  Our current location, a gem in the Florida State Park system, is in the middle of the peninsula of Florida, about 50 miles, as the crow flies, north of Lake Okeechobee.  Whatever you picture of Florida, Kissimmee Prairie is probably the opposite of what comes to mind.  Kissimmee Prairie is, or was, cattle-grazing country starting in the mid-1800s and continuing into the 1990s.  The landscape looks more like the extensive prairies of the Dakotas, except with brushy palmettos mixed in with the grasses and scattered clusters of cabbage palm trees.  Kissimmee Prairie is about a 3 hour drive to the nearest beach and over an hour’s to a Walmart, which is really saying something because Florida has nearly 200 Walmarts, second only to California for states with the most Walmarts.  There is a little country store is about 30 minutes drive away, and several miles down dirt and gravel roads.  Few people who visit Florida venture into this remote park, or even into this part of the state.2 This is the part of the state that helps contribute to agriculture being the second largest industry in Florida, second to tourism, of course.3  In fact, when the state purchased the property from the former owner, a cattle rancher, in the 1990s, the state hoped to capitalize on some of this tourism.  They built a visitor center with the intent of leasing the building out to an ecotourism operator who would offer biking tours, horseback riding, and other exciting activities in many miles of this extensive prairie landscape.  However, not one firm ever even submitted a proposal to try to run a business out here.  Really, this is not a place you stumble upon and even if you are looking for Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, you might second guess your directions and your intentions as you drive mile after mile along narrowing country roads and you watch the bars on your cell phone drop and then you continue through miles of gravel roads and into an increasingly rural and remote location.  But this is just where I wanted our class to be and I wanted each of them to enjoy and appreciate this place as much as I do. 

By the time we reached Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, we were four days into our 10 day field trip through southern Florida.  Just a couple days earlier the 114 of us, 10 undergraduate students and myself, had packed up our camping equipment and flown from Hartford, CT to Tampa, Florida.  We rented two mini-vans at the airport5 and set about exploring an array of natural areas scattered among the highly developed south Florida.  This was not only a fun experience to explore and camp6 in state and national parks, but it was also a formal college-level course called the “ENVI 355: Everglades and South Florida.”  Students had done background reading, and written a couple essays in preparation for this trip.  But certainly, the pinnacle and central component of the course was the 10 day trip in south Florida.  It also didn’t hurt that it was the middle of January7 and we left behind sub-zero temperatures with copious snow and ice back in New England.  When I parked the college van at Bradley airport a few days earlier, the inside windows of the van were coated in ice, formed from the condensation of our breath during the 90 minute drive from campus.  Now, in Florida, we were enjoying the 10 days of 70 degree temperatures and sunny days. 

Over the previous months, I crafted a detailed schedule for this specific trip.  Whenever I plan these academic travel courses, I pack in as many experiences, sites and activities as possible.  I want students get a thorough and immersive experience in these environments so dramatically different than our home state of Massachusetts.  The larger planning process began years earlier.  For the first college class I took to South Florida in January of 2012, I began planning in fall of 2009, and I conducted a personal “preview” trip in 2011.  During these scouting and preview trips, I learned immensely valuable information that is not available from reading websites or books.  For example, I learned about time budgeting for setting up camps, which parks have locked gates and when they close, which visitor centers and museums are worth stopping at, which sites we can satisfactorily explore on our own and which ones require a local expert, which campsites and parks are good for groups of college students, and many, many other valuable details. I also set out to talk to and meet a variety of people and probe them for local, insider information that I could use to craft a particularly amazing experience for my students. Each trip I lead is different for a variety of intended and uncontrollable reasons.  It is the uncontrollable factors that could derail a moment, a day or a whole trip.  However, intimate and thorough familiarity with the travel destination can rescue the travel and academic experience form these curveballs.  Let me give you three instances when being familiar with the destination can rescue or enhance the academic experience.

Nature doesn’t always cooperate.

On one trip, the heat and humidity was exceptionally high and it was really wearing on the students who were still acclimated to the New England winters.  Further, one of most miserable days coincided with a day when we were exploring the hottest and driest part of the state, the Lake Wales Ridge scrubland.  There is almost no shade in the scrub and there are lots of bushes and cacti that can scratch and poke you.  Plus, the Lake Wales Ridge is a giant pile of sand, so just walking is really physically demanding.8  After our several hour hike and exploration of the scrub with an ecologist named “Sticky” most of the group was really wiped out.  To cool off, Sticky suggested we could take a dip in the pond on the other side of the property.  “What about alligators?” I asked.  “I don’t often see gators in that pond.  There aren’t many gators up here on the ridge.  It would probably be ok.  If I didn’t have to leave, I’d be jumping in that pond! Phew, it is a hot one!” Sticky said.  The prospect of a refreshing dip was too much to pass up, at least for the ½ of the group.  The other half of the group skulked into the vans and cranked up the air conditioning as the cars idled and spewed off exhaust,9 contributing to the very cause of our current discomfort. Since Sticky had to leave, the students and I walked the ~1/4 through the soft and sandy trail out to the pond.  We took off our shoes and started walking toward the deeper, open water, which lay about 30 yards through the dense, waist-high, marshy vegetation. Mucky water oozed up through our toes as our feet sank deeper into the mud with each step.  The refreshing, although murky water ahead beckoned…  This actually looked like perfect alligator habitat. Did Sticky say how often he sees gators in here?  What did he really mean by probably be ok?  Why did he say he couldn’t stay to go swimming?  We all walked back to the car even hotter and muddier than he had been 30 minutes earlier.10 

Because of the heat and humidity, morale had dropped quite a bit and I knew we needed a break from more rigorous schedule I had planned for a subsequent day.  I changed the plans on the fly, and was able to develop alternative activities that still contributed to our class and also provided a break from the more physically demanding schedule.  In this case, I switched our schedule so we could take a few hours for an air boat ride11, to visit a small zoo with some captive animals12 that we were unlikely to see otherwise, and to sit in the shade and eat some alligator meat.

The students’ abilities might surprise you

On another trip, the students in the group were particularly well fit and had high stamina, even late into our 10 day schedule.  In this case, I changed our plans mid-day, once I saw that the weather would also cooperate.  The wind speeds and thus the wave heights would not be too overwhelming.  So, instead of driving to one of the keys to see examples of heavily altered vegetation, we rented kayaks and paddled ~1 mile across the ocean to an uninhabited island with a more pristine subtropical hardwood hammock.  Wow, it was an amazing experience and very memorable and impactful to students! This coalescence of a very capable group and good weather conditions happened only once so far.  I wish every group of students had the chance to do some ocean paddling around the keys, but the currents, waves and tides can be very challenging, so I do not plan this activity into our schedule.

The scheduled activities might not work out

On a few occasions, the people I’ve scheduled to meet with have had to back out for personal reasons.  For example, once, a natural resource biologist on Key Marco canceled the day before we were supposed to meet with him.  He was going to show us around Key Marco and help give our group his perspective on habitat and wildlife conservation on the heavily developed Key Marco.  However, once he canceled, I immediately had a couple alternative activities in mind.  Instead of being stalled out and left with free time, I was able to quickly adapt our plans.  Instead, we went to observe some burrowing owls and visit a historical roadside attraction that exemplified historic tourism in Florida.

In turn, I always spend lots of time carefully thinking through the itinerary for each trip13, and most of the time it happens just as planned.  Each time I think we have a near-perfect itinerary that balances the goals of the course and the abilities and disposition of the students as a whole.  I create an itinerary that is as immersive as possible, thus the activities like camping and hiking and paddling14 at various points during our trip.  In my planning I need to consider the abilities of the whole class, not just individuals.  In Will’s case, he was above average compared to the class as a whole in terms of his desire and ability to venture into remote areas for extended periods of time. So, compared to Will’s usual adventures backpacking in the northeast, our class trip in Florida was quite tame.  During Will’s freshman year as an Environmental Studies major at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, he would tell me about how he set off walking from the MCLA campus on Friday afternoon, off into the 1000s of acres of state forests in western Massachusetts and similarly remote areas of the Green Mountain National Forest of southern Vermont.  This is one of the amazing amenities of our campus, part of the Massachusetts University system, tucked away in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, just about the farthest you can go from Boston and still be in Massachusetts.  To the north- Vermont, and New York is immediately to the west.  Our campus, in the old, run-down mill-town of North Adams is literally surrounded by 1000s of acres of publicly owned forests:  Savoy State Forest, Mt Greylock State Reservation, Monroe State Forest, Clarksburg State Forest, Green Mountain National Forest, Clarksburg State Park, and Monroe State Forest are all less than a 15 minute drive from campus.  For Will, and any other motivated student without a car, these areas were still only a short hike through town after which you reach a veritable playground of endless wilderness.  Will would usually return to campus in time for his classes the next week.  One semester, Will took a hiatus from classes so he could complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  He was successful, after starting at Mt Katahdin in Maine in May and heading south to Georgia.  One fall semester, he covered his tuition bill by working at a nearby farm where his living conditions consisted of a yurt without heat or indoor plumbing.  When the temperatures cooled that fall, he kept a wood stove stoked and had an outhouse nearby.  Will was not impressed by the non-primitive camping conditions of our class field trip.  After all, we were camping in developed campgrounds in state parks and national parks.  The campsites had electricity and a bathhouse with showers.  Most of the bathhouses we used even had hot water and screens on the windows.  For most students, even in Environmental Studies, the running water and electricity are welcome amenities15.  However, I thought Will was getting a bit claustrophobic on this class trip and that he wanted something a little more wild than this trip was offering him.

When Will, didn’t show up for the walk down the Peavine Trail, I kind of expected that.  We arrived at Kissimmee Prairie in the dark so no one could really see what it looked like.  Before we arrived, I tried to build some anticipation for this amazing place, what I consider one of my favorite places in Florida.  The previous day I had raved to the class about how amazing this place is AND how remote it is.  Cell phone coverage is extremely spotty and there are several places in the park where there are no human structures visible anywhere- not a building, a powerline not even a distant tower is visible for miles. At night, the exterior lights at the bathhouse are a deep red in order to keep the skies dark for the professional and amateur astronomer that seek out these darkest skies in peninsular Florida for nocturnal sky viewing.  Really, KPPSP is an amazing place, a hidden gem in the overdeveloped south Florida. 

During our debrief, report-out and planning time at dinner16 the night before I had also said that this Peavine walk was optional.  However, everyone, including Will, said they wanted to come on this walk.  When will didn’t show up for that meeting time, I guessed that he woke up and saw how amazing this place really is, and that he wanted to do some more exploring on his own.  I just wished he had told me he decided not to meet up with the group until later.

So the class and I, minus Will, drove down the gravel park road to the Peavine Trail.  We walked out to the slough, which is usually a reliable location for alligators in January. By January, South Florida is in the dry season when relatively little rain falls.  Water levels in rivers, sloughs, marshes, and swamps get progressively lower, pushing the wildlife, including alligators into smaller and smaller patches of remaining water.   I don’t remember if we found alligators or what birds we saw.  About 30 minutes into our walk, a student pulled his phone out of his pocket, answered the call and starting talking.

Kevin turns to me: “It’s Will!”  Turning back to his phone, the conversation went something like this:  “Will! Hello!  Ahh, where are you?  We are looking for alligators on the Peeing Vines, ah, something…  Where are you?  Are you at the campsite?  No?  You are on some rock?”  Kevin looks up from his phone. “Uh, Dan, Uh, Will is lost and can’t find his way to the campsite.”

“Ask him what he sees around him.”

“Hey, Will, what do you see around you?”   pause….  “Will?… are you there Will?”,

Kevin looks at his phone.  “Uhh, Dan, we lost signal.  I don’t have any bars now.  Uhh, it sounded like Will was lost.”

I always distribute a phone list to all the students so we each have cell numbers for each other, but students often don’t enter the phone numbers into their phones. Kevin and Will were already friends and had each other’s phone numbers, I’m assuming.  For the most part, during our trip, we are all in close proximity and don’t need to communicate through phones or texts during the trip.  (Actually, I find that it is increasingly common that students can be sitting with each other in the same car and still be texting each other.  This doesn’t make sense to me.)   My general policy is that we always stay together as a group for the duration of the trip17.  Although we rent two vehicles in order to accommodate the group size and all our gear, I explicitly tell the students ahead of time that we will be together during this whole trip.  No one is allowed to take a rental car into town to go to a movie or bar or whatever.  We arrive and leave each site together.  Within a site there are some instances where the group can split up during “free time,”  but I always prescribe a meet-up time and the total free time is only 30-60 minutes.  This Peavine walk is an example of a typical free time/optional activity.  When I first lead these sorts of extended field trips, I built more free-time into the schedule than I do now.  However, I quickly learned that this free time is mostly squandered.  It is hard for students to know what to do with that free time when they are in a strange place.  I found that students would spend this time trying to figure out what to do instead of actually doing and seeing something.  Or, they go so quickly through a site that they couldn’t really appreciate the unique features the site has to offer.  Now, instead of scheduling free-time, I’ll often give students two or three options for what students can do at a site for the 30-60 minutes they have on their own.     

A few minute later, Kevin received a text message. “Dan, I just received a text from Will. It said, ‘Battery about to die. I’m lost.’ ”

I wasn’t really worried about Will until now.  We needed to go find the park rangers.  With Will’s phone battery dead, and Will being lost, we couldn’t just wait this out.  We went back to the park office to find the rangers.  By the time we got there, Will had already made contact with them.  Even though cell coverage was spotty at Kissimmee Prairie, Will was able to call 911, which then diverted his call to the Park Office and he spoke to the rangers before his cell battery died.  The rangers were already out searching the flat, 52,000 acre preserve with no man-made landmarks looking for Will.  What could we do to be helpful?   We were told to go back to our camp and wait for the rangers to do their job.  Our meeting with the park biologist?  That was postponed because he was also out looking for Will.  It was still early in the day and the temperatures were mild.  Will was self-aware enough to reach out for help relatively early in his wanderings, so he couldn’t have been that far away from the camp.  I was confident that the rangers would find Will pretty quickly.

The ranger’s truck pulled up to camp in the early afternoon.  Will exchanged chummy dialogue with the ranger, and hopped out of the truck and then was subjected to a barrage of questions by the rest of the class.  Will had woken early in the morning and decided to take a walk, heading out the back of the campsite into the prairie.  He expected to come back to meet the group for the Peavine walk, but once he realized he was lost he climbed onto a large rock to try to get his bearings.  Since he couldn’t figure out which way camp was, he used his phone to try to contact Kevin and then he called 911.  After making contact with the rangers he sat on the rock for a couple hours until they found him.  Will wasn’t really shaken by the whole incident and he was mostly apologetic about messing up the groups’ schedule. 

Although I never expected Will to be the one to get lost in the prairie, I am glad it was he who got lost and not another student.  Will certainly had the disposition to not become anxious or worried or act in a rash manner when he realized he was lost.  Will displayed almost all of the important behaviors when he realized he was lost. He stayed clam.  He made himself as visible as possible.  He made contact on his phone.  On subsequent trips I have been much more deliberate on emphasizing these sorts of safety measures both at Kissimmee Prairie and any site we visit.

Planning and offering these sorts of academic travel experience are incredibly time-demanding and even emotionally taxing.  These courses are extremely different than a conventional classroom or online experience.  However, I think the experiential, intellectual, social, and personal benefits to the students are enormous.  My discussions with students during and after they take this course lead me to this conclusion.  For example, in the ENVI department, we conduct an exit interview the graduating seniors before they leave campus.  Repeatedly, maybe to a rule, students who have taken this Everglades and South Florida course list this academic travel course as one of their favorite and most meaningful courses at MCLA.  Students speak not only of the content they’ve learned but also of feeling empowered in their own professional and personal pursuits after having taken this course.

Helpful Tips for Academic Travel Courses

  1. Local experts diversify the learning opportunities. As much as possible, I arrange visits with local experts and practicing professionals throughout our trip.  There are several huge benefits to this.  First, the students listen to a new person more intently, even if it is the same content I would share with them.  Second, the local expert really does have more knowledge and perspective than I do! I get a chance to ask my questions as well.  Fourth, hearing the same information from someone who is applying and living with the realities we have read and talked about emphasizes that our leaning is not just an academic exercise. Fifth, I always ask the local experts about their personal professional journey and any tips they would give to undergraduates today.  This often leads into some informal career coaching that students find very valuable, even if it is the same thing their professor says to them.
  2. Create an experience that students are not likely to have in any other way or at any other time. Most of the students I take to south Florida have been to Florida before. In fact, I often hear students say they are not interested to go because they’ve been there before.  However, I love to show students places that most people never see or experience.  I want to inspire my students to be inquisitive and look for these sorts of moments of discovery and new experiences. 
  3.  Even though this course is focused on ecology and nature, an interdisciplinary context is critical for understanding the larger system. I want students to have a holistic perspective on the natural and human history of south Florida and understanding why it is the way it is today.  As is the case with environmental studies, we need to understand the economic pressures and human history that lead to the landscape we see today.   
  4. Ideal group size is influenced by course goals.  I have found that the ideal number of students is about 9 or 10.  There are practical reasons for this group size.  We can fit in two rented mini-vans with our gear and we can still move rather quickly as a group.  However, a large reason behind this group size revolves around meals, including both the logistics of food preparation (each pair of students cooks once or twice for the group), consumption (we can all sit together at two picnic tables and still see each other and hear each other while we are sitting in the dark), but also discussion.   Dinners are a prolonged events with lots of discussion and sharing.  At dinner, each person must share at least once.  Further, during the trip each student much give their two oral reports, which often takes place during dinner.   This mandatory sharing and reporting provides abundant fodder for discussion.  However, a group that is too small doesn’t have sufficient fodder and a group that is too large means not everyone can participate in the in-depth way I hope for.
  5. Unfortunately, it all costs money. The two largest expenses for these trips are airfare (on average 40% of cost) and car rentals in Florida (18% of cost).  Because of my group size, I usually do not have group airline reservations. Further, I’ve found that the group airline rates are higher than the open-market rates.  I start watching car rental prices a year before the trip.  Each time the price drops I make a new reservation, with the hopes I’ll get the car rental costs as low as possible.  I similarly watch airlines prices, but once those plane tickets are purchased, the price is locked in.  Food costs on average 13% of the budge.  Other costs include gasoline, campsites, admissions fees, kayak rentals, etc.
  6. Roughing it, at least a little bit, contributes to the immersive experience.  Students get to fall asleep to the sounds of the wind, the frogs, the insects, birds and coyotes.  Even pounding tent pegs into the sandy ground is a learning opportunity, just not one that I list on the course syllabus.
  7. Use the timing of the travel to maximize the quality of the experience. I choose January for this trip in order to avoid the heavier crowds that will pile into south Florida starting in later January.  This also fits nicely between our fall and spring semesters.  In this way, students can catch-up on a few credits or even get ahead.
  8. Push students outside their comfort zones, for their own good. Yes, walking in the Lake Wales scrub is not necessarily fun.  However, the ecological uniqueness, representative species and conservation lessons learned while walking through the scrub are embossed into students’ memories with the pokes and scratches experienced along the way.
  9. Use the experience to confront the irony of environmental travel. Professionally and personally I espouse a paradigm of environmental sustainability.  However, by taking this trip we are contributing to environmental degradation of the system we are studying.  For example, we drink bottled water (because the tap water tastes “swampy”) while we consider how groundwater depletion is causing the natural springs to run dry.  When we reach the Everglades National Park and talk about sea level rise, we are confronted with the irony of generating the carbon emissions leading to the sea level rise.   
  10. Emphasize peculiarities of local safety, even to students who “already know.” One time I received a phone call from a parent of a student who would be taking this trip with me.  She said, “Please promise me that my daughter will not be eaten by an alligator.”  Wouldn’t you know it, several days later, I found this girl creeping up on a large, 8+ foot alligator while it was basking on the grass.  She called me over, “Dan, I can’t believe I can get this close to such a huge alligator!”  In that moment I thought I was going to break my promise to her mom.  Now, when I review safety issues in Florida I am sure to triply emphasize the speed of alligators.  Our most common issues are sunburn, mosquito bites, and fire ants.  But there are all sorts of other things that can be harmful.  I wait until students are signed up to tell them to not even touch the plants.  Really, there is a plant called poison wood.
  11. The irony of a traveling environmentalist is abundant.  Air boats can wreak environmental havoc.  I show students the air photos of the scars in the vegetation caused by air boats.  Still, this is a culturally important component of Florida’s history and modern tourism economy.  I only took a class on an airboat once and it was in a marsh wetland overrun with the invasive cattails, not the native sawgrass of the intact, historical Everglades.   
  12. There are trade-offs with authenticity and pragmatism, especially when observing cryptic animals. There are several small zoos throughout South Florida.  I usually stop at one of them just so students can see a gopher tortoise, a Burmese python (nasty invasive snake in the Everglades) and a panther (which may not actually be an actual Florida Panther, but at least it’s the same species).  This also gives us the opportunity to talk about not just these species, but also the value of captive wildlife to conservation and educating the public.
  13. There are several benefits to modifying the itinerary for each successive trip. I like to switch around some site visits, what people we meet up with, and when and where we do some activities.  Some sites and activities we must do. For example, I definitely want students to experience walking waist-deep in the marsh and swamp.  However, we might take a swamp walk in Big Cypress or Everglades National park or Fakahatchee Strand.  I change the itinerary for a few reasons: to provide different student experiences, to provide new opportunities for me, and because I’m always looking for a better experience, site or person to help us learn.  I’ve found that students like the fact that I vary the itinerary.  Although they will only experience the trip once, students are always asking if other classes did certain activities.  They like when I answer, “you are the first class to do this one!”  If I’ve been to a site before, they want to know how it differs from my previous experiences there.
  14. Ensure that you and your students possess the necessary physical and mental fitness. I ask students about their physical and mental condition for participation.  On the physical side, I specifically ask if they can swim and their abilities to spend long hours walking and standing.  The mental fitness is becoming more of an issue over time.  I’ve not found a good screening mechanism to ensure students are mentally prepared for this strenuous trip.
  15.  Plan the trip itinerary in order to challenge the average student.  This means the schedule will be a challenge for many, but still not as vigorous and adventurous as some students might prefer.  I have found that students readily reach out to help each other and that helps build group cohesion that contributes to everyone’s learning more and having a better time throughout the course.
  16. Mealtimes provide excellent times for delivering course content, reflecting and sharing and providing logistical information.  On the night before we fly out of New England, we meet together for a group dinner and I set the pattern for how our group time together during dinner will function.  During dinner, we all eat together in the same place, every night.  We debrief the day’s activities.  Students are required to share something from the day.  We discuss observations from students and also concerns anyone might have. Before we dismiss from dinner, I’ll give an overview of the schedule for the next day, when we need to meet in the morning, what students need to be prepared, what they should expect, etc. I realize this sort of travel and experience is new for many students, so I try to anticipate any concerns and build a confident expectation for students.  If there is one thing that I can emphasize about what makes this academic travel function so well, and why students come back to campus with new friendships, is because of what happens during dinners.  Students pair up to be cooking buddies and they plan and cook a meal for the rest of the class.  It’s important that there is enough food of what the students want; this helps keep morale up.
  17. During our travel, I emphasize the group over the individual.  Staying together as a group promotes group cohesion, safety, and engagement.  It communicates that all group members are equally important the whole time.
  18. Carefully think through the ground transportation. Ground transportation can be a challenge.  When students sign up I ask for volunteers who are willing to drive a minivan.  I don’t offer this upfront, but in the end, the student driver gets a modest honorarium from the trip budget.  Different car rental companies have different requirements for age of driver, costs of adding additional drivers, credit card requirements, etc.  Be sure to thoroughly investigate all of these details when planning ground transportation.  Because I have created my own itinerary, I have always wanted the flexibility of our own vehicles rather than using a coach service.

Biographical Note:

Dan Shustack is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at MCLA where he teaches a variety of courses that focus on wildlife and the connections between humans and the environment.  His research addresses various aspects of avian biology and ecology.  You can find him outside chasing birds and enjoying the Berkshires during all months of the year.

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