Their classroom is the desert

Washington University’s unique Pathfinder program takes students on field trips to explore the ecosystems they've studied

“You can only do so much in the classroom, so much with movies, slides, discussion and research,” said Ray Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It really helps to study why a region is so important and so fragile and needs to be protected— and then go see it and actually touch it.”

He is hardly alone in this opinion. A large body of research shows that people care deeply about nature only if they have spent time botanizing in meadows and mucking about in streams.

So the hallmark of the 18-month Pathfinder Program in Environmental Sustainability that Arvidson leads is the field trips. The trips cap semester-long case studies of ecosystems that embody the problem of environmental sustainability.

This spring the freshmen traveled to the Mojave National Preserve in California to study this fragile ecosystem, to witness the degradation people are causing and to discuss the politics associated with the formation of the preserve in 1994.

The impact of past and future climate change is also written in the desert for the students to read. At the peak of the last Ice Age, 18,000 years ago, many of the desert playa, or dry lake beds, were full of water and home to fish and shellfish. The water vanished a few thousand years ago when shifts in Earth’s orbit changed wind systems and rainfall. Today the Mojave National Preserve is the driest place in North America.

But the students could also see signs in the desert plants of modern, as well as past, climate change. “They’re adapted to the desert,” Arvidson said, “but not to conditions as dry as we’re currently seeing.”

It’s the kind of experience one remembers for life.

“It’s very difficult to get the students back in the vans after the trip to get them back to classes,” Arvidson said.