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Ten University of Utah Honors students spent one week studying the ecological landscape of Centennial Valley, Montana.

By Chanapa Tantibanchachai

Endless clear, blue skies, rippling grass, abundant wildlife and cozy cabins miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. What sounds like the perfect location for a serene vacation is where 10 University of Utah Honors College students spent one week of intensive studying out in the field for the Honors College’s new ecology and legacy minor.

The location, the University of Utah’s Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, is nestled away in Centennial Valley, Montana, just roughly two hours west of Yellowstone. The valley has been rated as one of the most significant natural landscapes in Montana and abuts Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has the largest wetland-riparian habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Area and boasts an abundance of wildlife, including over 260 bird species. A sample of ecology-based research projects currently conducted on the refuge includes “Population Dynamics of Lesser Scaup Ducks,” “Effects of Moose Browsing on Health of Riparian Willow Stands” and “Wildlife Response to Different Lengths of Rest from Grazing.”

Honors-Montana-studentsThe inaugural cohort of the U’s Honors College’s ecology and legacy minor set out for its first week of class at the Taft-Nicholson Center on June 25 and departed July 3. The minor requires six intensive weeks of place-based learning in three locations: Centennial Valley, the Great Salt Lake and the Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia, Argentina. In each location, students not only study the unique ecological landscape, but also examine their sense of self and place in the world. A well-balanced blend of ecology and humanities, the minor pushes students to observe their physical surroundings from a scientific standpoint while simultaneously reflecting on their purposes in life. After completing their summer travels students will take their final course for the minor in the fall, where they will each answer the question: “What will my legacy be and how do I live my life now to better ensure my legacy comes to be?”

During their week at the center, students worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. nearly every

day. Each day consisted of bird watching from 6 to 8 a.m.; students had to participate at least three mornings and had the option of which days to participate and which days to sleep in. After a hearty breakfast, students attended Comparative Ecology & Species Interaction taught by U biology professor Donald Feener and learned the basics of population ecology and species interactions from 9 a.m. to noon, sometimes getting out earlier to conduct field work.

After two hours of lunch and reading time, students headed back to the classroom for three hours of Intellectual Traditions through an Ecological Lens with honors associate professor Andy Hoffman. Switching gears from the previous class’ focus on strictly scientific concepts such as random mutation and ecological networks, the Intellectual Traditions class instead focused on discussing the human experience and the intersections between environment, philosophy, politics, law, health and art.

The students noted that though the days seemed to drag on, the week flashed by with the wink of an eye. Having only met each other before embarking on the 5-hour drive to the Center, the students quickly and deeply bonded after only a few days of living, studying, eating and exploring together. The group ranged in age (incoming freshman to senior) as much as it did in discipline; from French to astronomy to materials science engineering, the 10 students represented a melting pot of academic interests and colorful personalities. Differences aside, the students all had one thing in common: They were serious about understanding the environment to better protect it and dead set on going forth into the world to help others do the same.

The valley’s ecological landscape served as the ideal location for learning firsthand the components that make up the practice of ecology while its remoteness and stunning scenery was conducive to practicing mindfulness and introspection. The week’s activities, from classroom lectures to identifying flowers to performing emotionally raw, personal poetry, embodied the Honors College’s commitment to engaged learning by requiring students do more than just memorize facts and figures. The students saw lessons in action right before their very eyes and interacted with the world around them.

John Taft, one of the center’s generous founders, called the group’s endeavors refreshing and stated that the students gave him hope that such bright young minds could solve the world’s many pressing problems.

“This is what all college learning should be like,” Taft said.

To read about the group’s adventures, follow their blog.