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Exploring collaborative, cross-disciplinary, outdoor experiential education and a sense of place using examples from ACM

While landscapes provide opportunities for inherently cross-disciplinary collaboration, field stations/natural lands areas are often envisioned as primarily biology spaces. This narrow emphasis falls short of the potential of broader interconnected teaching and learning. Macalester courses from eight departments across academic divisions have recently utilized the college’s “other campus.” Similarly, five St. Olaf departments have used their on-campus natural lands. Still, these classes are focused on sub-disciplinary learning goals and often utilize discipline focused pedagogies, thus limiting student training in creative critical thinking and team-based, multidisciplinary problem solving. 

We seek to expand collaborative, cross-disciplinary, outdoor experiential education. Field stations and natural lands have historically been used primarily for teaching laboratory components of biological science courses in general, and ecology in particular. These outdoor experiential learning opportunities are crucial but limited in the number of students and faculty they impact and the disciplinary scope of the knowledge generated. Many colleges have moved beyond this restricted perspective of the “natural” landscape. At Macalester, anthropology, art, educational studies, English, environmental studies, geography, geology and media and cultural studies have joined biology in recent years. St. Olaf usage has diversified as well with English, environmental studies and religion. However, these classes are still disciplinary or sub-disciplinary specific in content and design. There is little, if any, cross-disciplinary collaboration to enrich our understanding and sense of place that provide insights from multiple perspectives. 


Our goals include peer-mediated exposure to and exploration of multiple ways of knowing, teaching and learning in shared landscapes using Macalester’s Ordway Field Station and St. Olaf’s campus and Natural Lands as models. These curricular and pedagogical approaches will enable us to collaboratively explore and examine various temporal and spatial scales as well as disciplinary lenses in our teaching and learning on and about the landscapes in which we live, learn and teach.


Before site-specific workshops, participants will engage with shared readings to gain a solid academic foundation in outdoor experiential education. Two proposed workshops will provide day-long introductions to examples of outdoor experiential learning for up to 20 faculty and teaching staff sharing teaching, learning and research practices and goals. One workshop will be held at Macalester’s Ordway Field Station. The other will be at St. Olaf utilizing both its traditional campus and adjacent Natural Lands.  

At each location, faculty will lead walking discussions across the landscape sharing specific examples about what, why, where and how they have utilized particular features of the land in their teaching and research. For example, ecologists might discuss how tree diameters help students understand shifting forest composition while anthropologists focus on utilizing archaeological digs and cultural resource management assessments to help students grasp changing patterns of human habitation and landscape utilization. These hikes will emphasize conversation and hands-on learning to facilitate brainstorming on how we can better incorporate these landscapes. Walks will be followed by on-site deliberations and preliminary development of modules or activities that can bring a multidimensional sense of place to our teaching and/or research. Participants will explore collaborations across disciplines and institutions based on examples of how existing users have incorporated these landscapes into their teaching and research across a broad spectrum of diverse academic backgrounds. Postworkshop collaborations will work towards full development of modules, activities and possible parallel or co-taught courses that will more fully take advantage of multidimensional opportunities. 

Dissemination Strategies

At least three participants (including at least one each from St. Olaf and Macalester) will collaboratively present at Macalester College’s Talking about Teaching program through the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching. Dissemination at St. Olaf College will be through a presentation at the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts’ faculty lunch conversations series. Additional presentations will also be made at the annual meetings of the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE) and the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS). The OBFS annual meeting has become increasingly multidisciplinary with a particular growth in English and ne arts participants. The goal is to reach an even broader array of faculty who may be interested in learning about ways of incorporating their shared environments outside of the classroom into their teaching and research, particularly at small liberal arts colleges. The project team will also supply a final report, working documents, curricular and pedagogical materials for publication on the ACM website. 

Resources & Materials

Two intensive workshops form the backbone of our collaborative framework. Each workshop will extend a full day in order to maximize shared work time. The workshops will provide crucial, face to face introductions, site specific outdoor sharing and peer-teaching, and structured time to begin working on products. We include transportation (mileage between Macalester and St. Olaf, as well as between Macalester’s main campus and the Ordway Field Station) and food (three meals each day for 20 participants) for each workshop. 

Dissemination of project results to faculty and teaching staff at St. Olaf and Macalester will occur through joint presentations at on-campus teaching and learning speaker series. Mileage reimbursement will be the only expense for these presentations. Broader dissemination of project results will include postings on the ACM website as well as presentations at the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE) annual meeting and the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) annual meeting. Presenting at the NSEE conference will reach an audience specifically interested in experiential education. Our contribution will be a focus on collaborative, cross-disciplinary, place specific outdoor experiential education. Expenses for two faculty members, one from each college, to participate in the NSEE conference will be covered by this grant. Presenting at the OBFS conference will reach an audience that is focused on place based research and education but typically limited to intensive, sub-disciplinary studies. In recent years the OBFS meetings have become more multi-disciplinary with a growing emphasis on how ne arts, poetry and creative writing can enrich our understanding of place. Expenses for one faculty member to participate in the OBFS conference will be covered by Macalester College using dedicated funds from their eld station and Faculty Travel and Research budgets. 

Stipends (two per college) will provide compensation for the lead project team. Fringe benefits (10%) have been included for Macalester faculty. The lead team will solicit broad ranging participation of diverse faculty from each college, develop and implement the workshops, take the lead on developing presentations for dissemination at the two annual meetings, manage the project budget, and write the final report. 

Shared readings are critical to providing all participants with a solid, common background in the theory and practice of outdoor experiential education. These readings will help participants go beyond their own personal experiences to include broader concepts and specific examples founded on research and best practices. Books will be distributed prior to our campus workshops so that participants can build upon a shared set of texts. Likely titles include: The Ecology of Place: Contributions of Place-Based Research to Ecological Understanding by Ian Billick and Mary V. Price (eds), $52.20; Ways of Knowing: Selected Readings by Kevin Dodson and Jon Avery (eds), $57.49; and Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science by Gemma Anderson, $42.50. We will collectively read selected chapters from each book. Individuals or teams of participants will likely read the entirety of some or all of the texts. These three books total approximately $150 per participant. 

Outcomes and Significance

Immediate outcomes of the project will be cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional introductions to colleagues who share interests in outdoor experiential education but may not have a complete understanding of the spaces or opportunities available to them. By bringing together faculty who have previously utilized these spaces in their teaching and those who have not yet done so, we will discover new perspectives and insights into how we understand and utilize the outdoor “classrooms” that surround us.  

Additional outcomes may include course modules, co-taught courses, targeted guest lectures in previously unassociated classes, cross disciplinary student-faculty research collaborations and other opportunities to deeply understand these places. Knowledge and understanding will expand from singular disciplinary perspectives to a more diverse and integrated sense of place. Students will benefit from this cross-disciplinary collaboration, providing them with carefully scaffolded opportunities to practice critical thinking skills and reinforcing the benefits of a liberal arts education. We will discuss how the modules and activities developed may be applied to institutions without eld stations. 

 Participants will be asked to create discrete “packages” of curricular innovations that can be posted to the ACM website for access by individuals at member institutions. Additionally, participants will be encouraged to continue collaborations and consider follow-up institutional and ACM proposals to implement concepts and courses developed during this grant. Products will include a presentation at two annual professional meetings and joint presentations at Macalester’s Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching and St. Olaf’s Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts. 

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