Summer Trip To Alaska Combines Research And Outdoor Learning
Riverdale Country School students are all too familiar with the numerous emails they receive promoting trips, clubs, and outings. Now, for the second year in a row, students will have the opportunity to take part in a trip unlike the rest. The “Ecology and Exploration in the Alaskan Arctic” expedition, spearheaded by Mr. Marshall Nicoloff and Dr. Rachel Cox, intertwines two very popular topics of interest: the outdoors and science.
Riverdale Country School has a very active outdoors club, with dozens of excursions that span the nation. To Mr. Nicoloff, the director of outdoor education, two of the biggest components of learning from the outdoors are character and community development.
Mr. Nicoloff believes that character development in the outdoors is all about “leadership skills, and the things that we develop just by having been out on these kinds of experiences.” Mr. Nicoloff said that in terms of community development, students can grow a lot closer by sharing tough experiences with their peers, “it’s hard at times, and we struggle as a community, but we also learn about how we can develop and work together as a community.”
Both Mr. Nicoloff and Dr. Cox deeply appreciated getting to know their students better and immersing themselves in the outdoors last summer. However, like with any experience, there were low points too. Mr. Nicoloff recalled a time when the group was “six miles from [their] camp in an area that had nothing: it was vastly open.” The group “basically had to navigate [their] way back those six miles with probably about 20 foot visibility.” Mr. Nicoloff joked that “probably everybody at that point on the trip thought that there was not a likelihood of being dry again ever in our lives.” Even so, he believes that everyone was able to flourish and grow during those tough times in the tundra.
In addition to participating in outdoor activities, students attending the Alaska trip study and report on the environment. The two main studies that will continue this coming summer are a black spruce treeline investigation, and a study in the tundra which will date back 40 years.
When speaking about the research that students conducted, Dr. Cox explained, “it’s interesting because we’re studying plants. We’re studying some of the biggest, highest, oldest trees in the country, and we’re studying some of the most primitive, low-down mosses in the country. They’re both being affected in different ways by climate change. And they’re both really good model species for looking at how these organisms are adapting to the stress of climate change.”
However, unlike traditional science classes, the teachers and students face a completely different dynamic. Rather than working together according to a traditional teacher-student relationship, all members of the group treat each other as peers. Dr. Cox explained, “I really learned a lot from these students.”
When these two aspects of outdoor education and science are combined, the results are phenomenal. When designing the trip, Dr. Cox felt that “students would have a much deeper experience in the wilderness if they were thinking about the sorts of scientific questions that ecologists are currently facing.” She described this interdisciplinary learning as “synergy.”
Fred Meckler, a senior who attended the trip last summer, found it extremely helpful to “retrain your brain” to think in an interdisciplinary manner. He explained that in terms of science learning, “none of that exists without going to these places and seeing it first hand.” Meckler continued that “reading it off a textbook is not what’s going on” in real life.
The most significant change to the trip this summer will be the route because students will determine it. The backpacking portions and science portions of this trip will also be more intertwined. This year’s trip is scheduled run from June 21st through July 7th.