Mountain Class: Geography Students Explore How Communities Work — in the Rockies

Newswise — “Bear spray will be provided.” Those five words at the end of the syllabus for Geography 269 are just one of several indications that the summer course is not your average study abroad offering.

Though they don’t have to bring bear spray, the students in the course, “Geographic Field Studies in Western Canada,” are expected, for the most part, to cook their own meals, sleep in hostels, and be prepared for strenuous hikes.

Starting in Calgary, Alberta, they do field research in southern Alberta and British Columbia, taking in the prairies and the Canadian Rockies and spending time in small towns and stunning national parks, including Waterton Lakes and Banff.

 “The landscape is the star of the course,” says Associate Professor of Geography David Robertson, who is from Calgary. He leads the trip, along with his geography colleague Associate Professor James Kernan. “I get an incredible amount of pleasure teaching my students about my hometown. It makes me feel simply proud.”

Last August the course was offered for the seventh time, and once again it proved to be an academically rigorous, physically demanding experience that immersed the students in the daily life of a stunning and diverse world they had not known.

“Millennials, and myself included, tend to look at the world at a broader perspective,” says Jimmy Feng ’18, a geography major from Brooklyn who knew little about Canada before taking the course. “But in doing so, we often ignore local surroundings. We seek to invoke change on a grand scale, but that will never be possible if we do not even know about our own backyard.”

Robertson is quick to stress that the culture and way of life in Western Canada is a distinct culture; that to study its communities is really and truly to study abroad, though the students didn’t have to cross an ocean to get there.

Their goal is to do what geographers do: explore how communities have been shaped by social and natural geography, and see how things came together, how they work, and how they might be made better.

And there’s another payoff. The students — there were 12 this past summer — and their teachers learn to work together, to teach each other, and to get along. (The syllabus says that anyone who is “willfully whiny” will lose participation points. It doesn’t happen often.)

Immersion and collaboration with classmates and professors made it  “the best two weeks” of her life, says geography major Brianne Hart ’17. “The people on the trip made it special,” she says, “but it was also being immersed in a culture.”

Two weeks in the mountains also means trying new things.

“I learned how to be more independent and push myself out of my comfort zone, to interact with people I never would have known and go on strenuous day-long hikes I never thought I could accomplish,” says Cara O’Shea ’19, an accounting major. “Overall, this trip gave me a taste for travel and a yearning to go everywhere and continue to push myself.”

O’Shea and other students conducted research on a topic of their choosing. “They bring knowledge into the field,” Robertson says, “and they see how it’s exemplified.”

O’Shea’s course project was to study how the 1914 Hillcrest coal mining disaster in Alberta was remembered. One hundred eighty-nine workers lost their lives, she says, but the tragedy was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I.  The men were buried in a mass grave and it wasn’t until the year 2000 that a granite memorial to the workers was erected.

Hart’s project set out to answer the age-old question: How do the grizzlies, elk, deer and salamanders cross the road? Or more particularly, how do these animals cross the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway as it passes through Banff National Park?

Highway planners and national park ecologists took on the problem when the highway was expanded from two lanes to four. Their goal was to reduce animal-vehicle collisions. Their solution was twofold. They erected miles and miles of fences and built animal-friendly overpasses.

Bridges that don’t look like bridges, the overpasses have ground cover and bushes and trees all designed to blend in with the landscape on either side of the road.

How are they working? Quite well, Hart reports, as animal deaths have dropped significantly. “The elk and deer took to them right away,” she says. “The grizzlies have been more wary.” (The salamanders, by the way, travel by tunnel under the road.)

Connor Anthoine ’17 was one of three Geneseo hockey players in the course. A geography major, he took on the topic of sustainability practices in ski resorts, using a British Columbia resort as his laboratory.

Ski resorts can use large amounts of fuel for equipment. Snow-making demands a steady supply of water, and trails encroach on the natural environment. Anthoine’s research found that some ski resorts in the United States have taken steps to reduce their environmental impact. That didn’t seem to be the case at this Canadian resort,

“They weren’t doing anything significant to be sustainable,” he says. “They had little going on.”

Ben Freiman ’17, a geography major, researched the challenges faced by the town of Banff, Alberta.

“It has 8,500 residents and it’s smack in the middle of Banff National Park, which has over 4 million visitors a year,” he says. “It’s uncanny. You’re in the middle of this beautiful setting and you come into an urban center.”

Freiman met with town planners to find out what they are doing to accommodate the visitors and improve infrastructure without harming the environment. This research underscores his interest as a geography major in urban and regional planning and in environmental studies.

Few students arrive at Geneseo hoping to become a geography major, says Robertson. “Geography is a ‘discovery’ major,” he adds, one that students come to after they enroll and take a course in the field and then another course. Then they’re hooked.

“I liked hard science, but I really liked people,” Freiman says, noting that geography with its emphasis on social and natural sciences seems to mix both interests.

Though the course in Canada is a natural fit for geography majors, Robertson says it has always drawn majors from other fields. This summer’s group included majors from geological sciences, physics and accounting. The students bond as a group, help each other, teach each other and encourage each other.

“I learned so many interesting things from these people, and created lasting relationships, which is what truly made this trip so worthwhile,” says O’Shea, the accounting major. 

Hart recalls the support she received from the others while on a 10-hour hike in Waterton Lakes National Park — a climb that challenged her extreme fear of heights.

“The most I’d done before was a little nature walk,” she says. She was nervous and hesitant, but, encouraged by her classmates, she conquered her fears. Life lesson learned: With help, you can be brave.

Those little — and big — lessons stick with you, and you gain perspective. Take Feng, who studied a variety of species in the Waterton park. “It is imperative to immerse one's self into the experiences and struggles of populations and peoples that we ourselves are not familiar with, because empathy is the most empowering and fundamental aspect of humanity.”

— By Jim Memmott


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