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Spring 2009 - Web Story 1

Destination Purdue > Spring 2009 - Web Story 1

Outdoor classroom teaches teamwork, skills

By Angela Hoffman

Last summer, pairs of Purdue students were dropped in the middle of a 50,000-acre forest and told to find eight trees with ribbons tied around them. Their only tools: an aerial map and compass. One team, drenched with sweat and swamp water, yelled out in frustration. There was no answer, but a rock whizzed by their heads. They turned and saw the last tree they were looking for. "We were in the right area the entire time," said Heather Powell, a junior wildlife science major from Mishawaka, Ind. It was a friendly teaching assistant throwing the rocks.

Finding the flagged trees was only one of the many activities Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources students completed during a five-week summer practicum course in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Fisheries, wildlife and forestry majors worked together in teams to gain hands-on experience and knowledge that no white-walled classroom lecture can match.

Mike Bradt, a junior wildlife science major from Mebane, N.C., also had a memorable learning experience while looking for the last flagged tree. He planned to bypass a lake by walking around the bank, but he didn’t notice he was already standing on a floating mass of vegetation called a bog mat. That meant he was already well out over lake. He fell chest-deep into the water and started sinking until his partner to pull him out. "By our calculation, it was one of the shorter legs of the course, but completing it soaking wet made it the longest leg for me," Bradt said.

Despite that, Bradt said the experience was worth it, because he could experience and practice he had only heard in classroom lectures. "I am a much more valuable resource to companies because of the actual hands-on training I now possess," said Bradt.

For the students, most days started at 7 a.m. and ended around 5 p.m., but there was still no typical day. The activities ranged from navigating through the forest - what some called, walking in circles - to rock climbing, canoeing, trapping, tracking, rock climbing and identifying and handling small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

The course also allowed students to focus on their areas of specialization. Powell who specialized in wildlife, excelled at bat tracking. She said that she discovered she was good at netting, handling, tagging and tracking live bats in the wild.

Believe it or not, students and staff agreed that putting in long days, walking in circles, standing chest deep in a bog, hiking through swamps with no cell phones or any signs of civilization, was well worth the experience. The course helps students gain a set of skills no other course can compare to, Powell said.