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Into the woods: Ethics class immerses students in conservation

Students participating in the SOC 234: Conservation Ethics & Values Study USA trip have the opportunity to learn about conservation in an immersive atmosphere.
By Madelyn Ostendorf

When you think about taking an ethics class, how do you picture it? Are you in the middle of the woods, sitting around a campfire, discussing the writings of environmental authors like Wallace Stegner or Sigurd Olsen? In Shawn Dorius’ SOC 234: Conservation Ethics & Values class, that’s exactly what your classroom looks like.

During the two-week summer session, students get an up close and personal view of the history of conservation in America and contrast conservation in the Midwest and Mountain West. Using the Rod & Connie French Conservation Education Camp as a home base, students in this Study USA field course travel all over the state of Montana and the surrounding region.

Montana is a great place to consider the ethical dimensions of conservation, as students explore some of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the state and two of the most popular parks in the national park system. In addition to daily readings and hikes, the course has several service-learning days where participants can actively contribute to conservation efforts in a national forest. Students also camp in Yellowstone National Park, backpack in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, and explore the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area.

The course aims to take students to over 10 national and state forests, wilderness areas and parks as they road-trip to and from the French Conservation Camp, nestled deep in Lolo national forest.

“Signing up for the trip to Montana was pretty impulsive, but it was one of the best decisions I have made during college,” said Sydney Pottebaum, senior in environmental science. “People from different majors across the university signed up. The class size was small, just seven students, one teaching assistant and Dr. Dorius, allowing us to form good relationships and really get involved in all the activities.”

All students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences must take an ethics course, and Dorius, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, saw an opportunity to offer students a somewhat different engagement with ethics.

“As I look across the list of college ethics courses, most are delivered on campus and in the conventional classroom setting, with great reading material and student discussion,” Dorius said. “What is underrepresented in our ethics offerings are experiential courses that move students into the contexts where ethic issues are most apparent and challenging. It’s one thing to read about water conservation in the Mountain West, and another entirely to see desert ecology and the vast network of reservoirs and canals developed and administered by the Bureau of Reclamation. Experiential learning is a wonderful way to enable students to engage in the ethical dimensions of conservation.”

Students choose a project topic that aligns with their major, career plans or their personal interests, and use the course readings and field experience to develop that project into something meaningful and impactful. To develop their project, students consult field notes that captured their thoughts, feelings, observations, interviews and experiences while on the trip. The course is flexible in its requirements, allowing students to highlight any topic of interest and to present their findings in a variety of formats.

“The conservation space is quite large,” Dorius said. “The students’ backgrounds are quite diverse. I had one physics student who was really interested in astronomy. He did an excellent policy brief on the night sky, the loss of access to light and the dark sky movement. He dove into the impacts of overexposure to light on wildlife and human health and produced a number of actionable recommendations to bend the curve toward protection of night sky.”

Another student created an engaging infographic about pikas, an endangered species which have lost more than a third of their natural North American habitat. Another project focused on Native Americans and their access to public lands. The goal of these projects is to help students create something meaningful they can take with them, beyond great memories and photographs.

“Many of the challenges we’re trying to tackle in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences converge around the concepts of sustainability and conservation, extending to farming practices, wildlife management, land policy, and the human dimensions that weave through it all,” Dorius said. “Stepping outside of the classroom for just a few weeks and leaving behind the hum and hustle of modern urban life enables students to connect to the natural world and develop what Aldo Leopold referred to as an ecological conscience. That’s a magical part of the undergraduate experience at Iowa State.”

Students from any college or major are welcomed to enroll, and applications are due by April 14 for this year’s travel course.