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Inside Environmental Science's Spring Field Camp

by John Thompson
Office of University Communications
  • A Western student measures Large Woody Debris (LWD), which are crucial for salmon habitat, on the Elwha River as part of Environmental Science Spring Field Camp.
    A Western student measures Large Woody Debris (LWD), which are crucial for salmon habitat, on the Elwha River as part of Environmental Science Spring Field Camp.

Two years ago, Associate Professor of Environmental Science John McLaughlin filled a void in what was being offered to the seniors in his department: he felt they needed an opportunity for a capstone experience they would remember for the rest of their lives.

At the same time, this new field experience would put into place bedrock foundations for data gathering and research methodology that would make an immediate impact whether they chose to move on to graduate school or immediately seek careers in the private or public sector after graduation.

McLaughlin began working on a curriculum that was eventually approved, and two years ago this spring he was able to offer the first Environmental Science Field Camp, an immersive set of four integrated courses during the months of April and May that take participating students far from campus for a week or more at a time, culminating in a two-week river expedition.

“This isn’t for everybody. The weather is changeable. There are no amenities. The hiking to and from field camps and research sites requires a ton of exertion,” he said. “But what it offers is an opportunity to go someplace and just absolutely dive in, without competing academic priorities, and learn, in depth, the kind of field and research skills they will need moving forward.”

More importantly, McLaughlin said field camp offers something even more important.

“It’s a window into the essential human experience – a group of people outdoors, away from modern society and their normal campus existence, supporting each other and learning together in a way that just doesn’t happen in a classroom. If I could use two words to describe what Field Camp has typically meant to the students who took it, those words would be ‘profoundly transformative.’ It’s that impactful,” he said.

Senior Environmental Science major Caelan Johnson, who took field camp last spring, echoed McLaughlin’s thoughts.

“Field camp was the best learning experience that I have had in all of my schooling. It was the first time that everything that I learned in my classes could be directly applied to potential careers,” he said. “From field camp I gained a ton of experience practicing field techniques and methods that a real environmental scientist would use. I also became much more familiar with the scientific process and technical writing. For many undergraduate science majors, the highest achievement is to present research that you did yourself, and we had the opportunity to do that thanks to field camp.”

McLaughlin said his goals are to have three identifiable takeaways from field camp each year: publishable research; a project worthy of appearing in the Scholar’s Week poster sessions towards the end of the quarter; and a period of intensive field research mentoring.

For many undergraduate science majors, the highest achievement is to present research that you did yourself, and we had the opportunity to do that thanks to field camp.

Depending on weather or climate conditions on the two usual field camp sites on the Elwha River near Olympic National Park and the Grand Ronde River in northeast Oregon, McLaughlin will build in two or three trips for one or two weeks at a time to conduct the class’ field studies, gather data, and work on their projects. Back on campus, students will narrow down their research focus and once back from the final trip, prepare their research projects to be published or presented at Scholars Week, and, frankly, readjust to being back in the hustle and bustle.

“Sometimes being immersed for that long in nature, it can be a little unsettling when you first get back, and most students tell me how much they miss it,” he said.

Johnson agreed, and said the total immersion into the course resulted in something he hadn’t expected.

“I became very close with the other members of field camp throughout the quarter. They are some of my closest friends today, and it allowed me to connect with people that I might otherwise have never met,” he said. “John's commitment to the learning of his students goes beyond any faculty member that I have ever met and I am so grateful to have gotten the chance to work with him.”  

McLaughlin described field camp as a labor of love.

“It is a lot of work, it really is. I invest a ton in these students each spring,” he said. “And at the end of that experience, when I see them confidently presenting their research at Scholars Week, I know that it was worth it. They have never let me down.”

He said he hopes the allure of the outdoors and wild spaces will continue to be a draw for students the way it has always been for him.

“As a scientist and as an educator, I know that so many of the truly important, formative experiences I have had involve being outdoors, far away from a desk or an office or a classroom,” he said. “I felt that not enough students were getting that opportunity to experience field research in an immersive context that way – so that’s where field camp came from.”

This year’s field camp still has a few openings; for more information, contact John McLaughlin at john.mclaughlin@wwu.edu.

 

 

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