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Environmental Psychology at Rocky Mountain Park: The Human Relationship with the Natural World

Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:

Contested Spaces in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado

Environmental Psychology at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a St. Olaf College off-campus, January-term course that focuses on understanding the psychological significance of the natural world and examines human relationships with the rest of the natural world. My SAIL Curricular Project focused on increasing the extent to which the course explicitly incorporates interdisciplinary perspectives. In particular, after our “Contested Spaces” SAIL Seminar, I sought to have students use all four quadrants of the Integral Ecology model (Esbjörn-Hargens & Zimmerman, 2009):

  1. Individual Interior (subjective phenomenological experience, represented by academic areas such as English, creative writing, and some approaches to psychology);
  2. Individual Exterior (observation and empiricism, in this course represented particularly by empirical research in psychology);
  3. Collective Interior (culture, represented by cultural anthropology, history, and philosophy);
  4. Collective Exterior (systems, represented by ecology, sociology, and political science).

Note: Content adapted from the curricular project.

Course Context and Description

St. Olaf College’s academic calendar includes a January “Interim” term in which students take only one course intensively. An Interim course credit is equivalent to a semester-length course. Interim courses meet for multiple hours every weekday during January, and because students take only one course in January, it is possible for Interim courses to be taught offcampus. The Environmental Psychology at RMNP course takes place at Rocky Mountain National 2 Park in Estes Park, Colorado. The group stays at the YMCA of the Rockies (which borders the national park) and has its class meetings there. The course is a mid-level course that enrolls a combination of sophomore, junior, and senior students. Maximum enrollment is set at 20 students. For more information about the course, see McMillan (2012).

Because of the focus of the course, Environmental Psychology at RMNP particularly emphasizes the “Individual Interior” and “Individual Exterior” quadrants of the Integral Ecology model. The course does, however, incorporate the other two quadrants as well. Specifically, the course focused on the upper quadrants of 1) subjective experience in nature and 2) empirical research about people’s relationship with the natural environment. However, the course also made use of the lower quadrants by considering 3) how cultural factors and 4) different systems and institutions influence human connection with the natural world. Students explored in-depth, from all four quadrants, their own and others’ relationships to nature. Readings, activities, and assignments addressed each of the four quadrants. During our course in January 2015, students engaged in these readings and activities, and they engaged in substantial reflection on them in writing assignments and in class discussions.


Content/ Concepts Goals

  • Students will begin to see ways in which each of the four Integral Ecology quadrants can contribute to our understanding of the human relationship with the rest of the natural world.
  • Students will actually use methodological approaches from each of the four quadrants.
  • Students will engage in substantive reflection, considering insights from each of the four quadrants.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

The course addressed each of the four Integral Ecology quadrants through readings, activities, and assignments to help students develop skills in:

  • Observing and reflecting on their own and others’ phenomenological experience in nature (the “Individual Interior” quadrant of Integral Ecology);
  • Reading and understanding empirical research in psychology (the “Individual Exterior” quadrant);
  • Thinking about how culture influences human relationships with nature (the “Collective Interior” quadrant); and
  • Considering how systems play roles in these issues (the “Collective Exterior” quadrant).

Other Skills Goals

Important take-home messages for students about multidisciplinary/ interdisciplinary analysis included:

  • Each perspective has something valuable to contribute;
  • One methodology may be more appropriate than another depending on the given question; and
  • A more complete picture is achieved when we integrate the variety of perspectives.

The overall goal in the course was that students would come to appreciate and understand the contributions of these diverse approaches.

Resources & Materials

Esbjörn-Hargens, S. & Zimmerman, M.E. (2009, March). An overview of integral ecology: A comprehensive approach to today’s complex planetary issues. Integral Institute Resource Paper No. 2, 1-14.

Esbjörn-Hargens, S. (2009, March 12). An all-inclusive framework for the 21st century: An overview of integral theory. https://integrallife.com/integral-post/overview-integral-theory

Esbjörn-Hargens, S. & Zimmerman, M.E. (2011). Integral ecology: Uniting multiple perspectives on the natural world. Integral Books.

McMillan, D.K. (2012). Environmental Psychology at Rocky Mountain National Park: An undergraduate academic and experiential course. Ecopsychology, 4, 102-109.

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