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Environmental studies students enhance learning with a trip to Yellowstone

ISSUED: 30 September 2019
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Seven Shepherd University environmental studies students were able to experience firsthand what they learned in the classroom during a 10-day trip over the summer to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. The trip was part of a special topics class, Ecology, Geology, and Cultural Significance of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks, taught by Dr. Jeff Groff, chair, Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences.

The students spent six weeks in the classroom preparing for the trip, which included one day in Idaho, six nights in Yellowstone, and three nights in the Grand Tetons camping, hiking, backpacking, exploring the parks, and seeing what they had talked about in class.

“Beside the classroom learning associated with the geology of the area, we focused on the historical significance because Yellowstone is the first national park,” Groff said. “The students learned about people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold and this awakening that has occurred in the last 100 years of how important wilderness is. In this class, they were able to experience getting out into nature and the wilderness, which is different from just being out in a forest.”

Groff said Yellowstone is a particularly interesting place to visit because there are hydrothermal features, hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots.

“It’s the highest concentration of hydrothermal features and geysers in the world,” Groff said. “It’s this alien environment in that way, but then you have mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and all the animals—these large mammals like bison and bears. So the combination is fascinating. They call it wonderland for a reason.”

Jennifer Willett, a Boonsboro, Maryland, environmental studies major who hopes to one day go into environmental education, said she really enjoyed the trip.

“It was transformational and I think it shifted the way I will probably travel in the future,” Willett said. “I had a much deeper appreciation for the ecosystems and geology and everything because we spent time preparing our minds first, so things that I may have sort of brushed by I was able to see and ponder and articulate my thoughts.”

Willett said the trip in many ways exceeded her expectations.

“They were having a peak wildflower bloom. I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “You can learn about marmots, rams, bison, and black bear in the classroom, but to see them in their environment is different. You can’t experience the temperature stratification of thermal pools letting off steam then putting your feet in icy-cold glacial water just by sitting in the classroom.”

Ashley Williams, an environmental studies major from Martinsburg who one day hopes to work for the National Park Service, said learning everything in the classroom first made the trip much more interesting.

“It was an amazing experience because you know the history and geology and you have that much more knowledge of the area, so you apprciate it more,” Williams said. “The backpacking was one of my favorite things. Just being out in the middle of nature in the Lamar Valley, oh my gosh, that was beautiful. Being out in the middle of nowhere is such a peacful feeling. Dr. Groff made me stay up one night to watch the Milky Way and that’s the first time I saw the Milky Way.”

Sarah Sovinsky, an environmental studies major from White Hall, Maryland, who is studying acquatic science and is working for a solar company, hopes to combine those interests with travel in the future. She said taking this trip illustrated how travel can help enhance her education.

“I think this trip put a whole different depth and value into education because we got our background knowledge before going, but once we actually went it put everything into a completely different perspective,” Sovinsky said. “When you think about the wolves walking on the mountains, you have further curiosity because you’re looking at those mountains and asking ‘How did they get up there? What other wildlife is up there? Who has been here before us?’ It takes it down to a more personal level.”

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