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Writing Wilderness

Curricular materials created for the 2017 SAIL seminar:

Wilderness in the Anthropocene

Our Curricular Project involved a broadly-conceived culture change at the Coe College Wilderness Field Station (WFS) and specific course components and learning outcomes to facilitate more intentional interdisciplinary teaching and learning. We created an interdisciplinary Wilderness Learning Commons as part of the WFS core curriculum.

Currently, WFS offers two month-long sessions, with three or four classes per session serving roughly 12 to 18 students per session. The courses range from Boreal Ecology to Animal Behavior to Nature Writing to Environmental Justice. Until SAIL 2017, these courses had been conducted separately, with little curricular overlap or academic interaction between students. There had not been an expectation that faculty from different disciplines would have their students working together.

The new Wilderness Learning Commons has brought all WFS classes together in a more intentional way under the curricular umbrella of wilderness education. That is, each class spends time discussing and interrogating the central idea of the SAIL Seminar, Wilderness in the Anthropocene.

Since the WFS recruits faculty and students from different ACM schools, the potential impact from this project transcends the WFS summer program. It can help faculty from across the ACM develop collaborative research and teaching projects to shape teaching within and across schools.


  1. Interrogate wilderness in the Anthropocene
  2. Discuss common readings
  3. Bring courses together to build a Wilderness Learning Commons
  4. Make sense of experiential learning: field research/note taking/journaling
  5. Facilitate the development of strong interdisciplinary field research methods


The timeline for our project comprised three phases:

Phase I: Tested ideas in the 2017 second session (July-August 2017) during which Jesse taught Animal Behavior and Chris taught Nature Writing.

Phase II:  Took place during the 2017-18 academic year and resulted in updated language on the WFS website, as well as a clear set of learning goals and assignments/activities to facilitate interdisciplinary team teaching and learning.

Phase III:  Full implementation of the project in Summer 2018, during which time Jesse taught Bird Biology and Ecology at the same time that Pablo taught Environmental Justice. The  two groups went “on trail” together into the Boundary Waters.

Dissemination Strategies

Jesse and Chris piloted individual course modules in summer 2017, and Pablo continued this collaboration in summer 2018 when his Environmental Justice class went on trail with Jesse’s Bird Biology and Ecology class. In summer 2017, Jesse and Chris brought their Animal Behavior and Nature Writing students together for four course sessions and they collaborated on at least one major assignment. Together, they read and discussed Aldo Leopold’s “Wilderness” essay from Sand County Almanac. Then, one of our major class projects–a Field Notes Journal–was assigned during a joint class visit from local artist Consie Powell, who taught visual journaling techniques to the students.

Chris and Jesse then devised a joint session in which both professors shared their expertise during a common activity; Jesse gave his lecture about forest ecology, including tree identification. Chris then led a discussion of an essay from Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” focused on creative, subjective observation and the kinds of research creative writers do.

Probably the most successful and inspirational result of this collaboration occurred when the classes conducted a joint session observing dragonfly behavior on Low Lake. We sat together in canoes for more than an hour on a lily pad-filled bay on Low Lake. Afterward, at the former Sigurd Olson campsite nearby, students shared their observations; we discussed the uses of scientific data collection vs. more subjective responses. We also discussed how scientific writing might be improved with more figurative language, and how nature writing does not eschew, but embraces, scientific research.

Recorded observations from this dragonfly behavior class became part of the Field Notes Journal assignment for both classes, with the potential of becoming the subject for one of the essays or poems in nature writing, as well as one of the research projects for Animal Behavior.

After these four joint-class sessions, students in both classes were encouraged to continue to collaborate. One of the three essay assignments in Nature Writing requires students to include what they’ve learned in the joint sessions, for instance. We found that the example we set early for collaboration was readily accepted and continued by students, since they’re living and dining together.

After piloting this collaboration, Jesse and Chris shared results with Pablo, who then created a similar consortial collaboration with Jesse in summer 2018. Pablo’s class also relies on a similar field research approach that paired nicely with the Field Notes Journal assignment in Chris’s and Jesse’s classes. One potential hurdle to our collaboration is that we teach on different sessions. This is why the idea of the Learning Commons is so important.

Every course taught at the WFS involves extensive periods of research and reflection in the wilderness. We’ve now become more intentional about the way we teach students to conduct field research and record data across disciplines by bringing all of the students from our courses together to discuss this subject.

For example, we’ve invited speakers/artists from different disciplines to address the WFS as a whole. Examples of guest lectures include local naturalists, Friends of the Boundary Waters advocates, and regional researchers associated with the Boundary Waters or the international wolf and bear research centers in Ely. In Summer 2018, for instance, mammalogist Roger Powell addressed a joint session of creative writing and animal behavior students on his regional bear research.

Later in the session, poets Jayson Iwen of Duluth and Chad Faries of upper Michigan presented a reading and a roundtable discussion on their poetry and the subject of writing about the natural world. This was a model we first experimented with during SAIL, when poet Kim Blaeser read her poetry and presented her “picto poems” during the seminar. During the first session, behavioral ecologist Harlo Hadow spoke about the natural history of the mammals of the field station to science and environmental justice students, and Tonia Kittleson of the Friends of the Boundary Waters spoke on the economic, political and environmental conflict around the proposed mines in the area.

To facilitate the development of strong interdisciplinary research techniques at the WFS, students in Environmental Justice use a combination of field research methods that draws from different disciplines, including ethnographies, statistics, and visual sociology, to name a few. When Jesse´s and Pablo´s students went on trail together, students in their courses learned about each other´s research methods and helped one another collect and interpret data.

These discussions were often facilitated by Jesse and Pablo, but not always. Students often found themselves comfortable enough in their role as biologists or social scientists to teach those from other disciplines how to properly conduct field research. While courses at the WFS rely heavily on team research, past research teams were made up by students in the same course. We have begun to build bridges across courses and disciplines. Jesse and Pablo also engaged in conversations about research methods in their own fields and discussed research topics in the wilderness, including their own research projects. Both of them shared ideas for future teaching.

Finally, students in each course now give a public presentation of their work during one of the final sessions. We call this the WFS Student Symposium. The professors in each course decide the format that best meets their learning goals, such as posters, readings of creative work, a panel with presentations of student research papers, etc. Recently, nature writing students gave a reading of their work, animal behaviorists presented a poster session, and environmental justice students did short talks about their research projects’ goals and findings. The faculty and the other students engage in these public presentations by asking questions to assess how well the presenters have met their learning goals.

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