Sitting on top of a mountain examining the current effects of climate change on Montana’s landscapes isn’t a description of your typical environmental studies class. This experiential learning approach that WRFI offers it he key to their success at teaching to students to explore connectivity in the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

During our two month long adventure from Yellowstone to British Columbia, we travel to locations that are in environmental dispute due to debates of connectivity. This exposure gives students a first hand and personal connection with these controversial issues. Our journey consists of meeting with experts and specialists who studied their conservation issue for years. Finally, we have the opportunity to backpack through these areas of conflict and gain an even deeper outlook on a specific issue. Through this unique program, I know believe that this experiential learning approach should be a necessary element in tradition universities today.

During this WRFI summer Semester, my fellow classmates and I have been given the privilege of discussing subjects with different scientists, agency representatives, conservationists, rangers and Native Americans. These speakers give us different perspectives and are important resources at our fingertips.

One powerful speaker was Pat Pierre, a Pend d’Orielle elder and teacher at an immersion school. His talk gave a powerful insight on the conflict of the Flathead Indian Reservation as well as enlightened us on Native American perspective on environmental issues. His talk blew me away due to his story telling abilities. The way he views nature and his ability to interconnect all elements of landscapes was amazing. This opportunity was so rewarding and deepened my understanding of Native Americans and the environment.

Another advantage of experiential learning is the hands-on activities that allow further exploration of a subject. This element is met through our restoration projects. At Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, my classmates and I helped restore the habitat of the threatened Arctic Grayling. This task was successful through examining maps, discussion outcomes with rangers, and finally putting our shovels into the dirt to restore and reconnect the Amelin Creek to Odwell River. Through this approach, we went beyond the textbook and built a personal connection with the Arctic Grayling species and the environment. Additionally, we developed an understanding of how large of an impact humans have on ecosystems and how interconnected all elements of an ecosystem are.

Finally, adapting this experiential approach to a subject allows freedom of lecture location. This allows students to experience an idea/subject first hand. My favorite lecture so far was on top of Skyline Ridge. This beautiful ridge was the perfect location to explore the extensive local effects climate change has on the surrounding environment. We stood on the mountain in awe of the destruction the pine beetle had on the white bark pines. This destructive outbreak caused by climate change, allows these beetles to gain the ability to migrate to higher elevations as temperatures rise. With the increase in habitat, beetles now have the ability to kill thousands of old white bark pine that are in higher elevations which were not available to them a couple of years ago. This powerful image of miles and miles of dead pines show how big of an issue climate change is and our responsibility to help prevent further destruction. I believe this lecture helped me understand how important our role in climate change is on a different level due to observing the full effect in person.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I am grateful for the vast courses and departments provided for all students. However, I propose to help enhance their programs and create an opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of a subject to consider incorporating experiential learning into courses. This adaptation will help create exposure to important experts, develop hands-on activities and provide the ability to understand an issue first hand. This powerful approach helped me explore beyond textbooks and lecture and fully immerse myself in the dynamics of environmental conservation.