The cost of six VCU credits in HIST391 and BIOL391? About $2,000. The cost of spending a showerless month paddling 140 miles, backpacking 15 miles and camping along the James River watershed learning from the environment and a 446-page course companion while battling bugs, storms and sore shoulders? Priceless.
This summer nine VCU undergraduate students partook in the first collaborative history and biology course spent entirely outdoors entitled “Footprints on the James: The Natural and Human History of the James River Watershed.” The course included 30 days and nights in the field and explored everything from Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home to connections between aquatic and terrestrial food webs.
“Just being out there and experiencing a lot of the things we learn in the classroom and finally being able to interact with it and witness it first hand was a way different perspective than just reading about it in a textbook,” said junior biology major and program participant Wes Owens.
Biology professors Daniel Carr and James Vonesh, history professor Brian Daugherity and VCU Outdoor Adventure Program director Andrew Parent spearheaded the course. Carr, Vonesh and Daugherity accompanied the students throughout their journey as well as two rotating student OAP trip leaders selected by Parent.
“As part of this years’ Student Outdoor Leadership Experiences program all the trip leaders actually paddled the same section of the river that Footprints ran on. This really gave us a much better idea of what to expect when we were running the trip,” Parent said.
Despite the physical demands of the month-long endeavor on the James, the students were not selected for the trip strictly based on their background in the outdoors — or even their area of study. A journalism and creative advertising major were each selected after the application and interview process, and Carr said only a couple of the students had an extensive background in the outdoors.
“It was amazing, that was one of the things I was blown away by,” Owens said. “I expected more drama and there really wasn’t, everyone was way out of their comfort zone and in points of stress we rallied together rather than argue with one another.”
One such potentially stressful circumstance that Carr and Owens said really proved this point was at the very beginning of the trip. The group had taken a slightly longer and narrower profile down the river so that they could travel faster and in the shade–but then it started to storm.
“We’re all sitting there joking and laughing about it and it’s getting colder and we’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s windy and only about 50 degrees and everybody’s soaked. And then they start singing,” Carr said, smiling as he recalled the experience.
He explained that only two of the students on the trip had previously been in a similar situation.
“They’re literally sitting there cracking jokes ten feet apart, crouched down while it’s raining torrentially and there’s no stress even though we’re sitting there wondering how long we have before hypothermia sets in,” he added as he described how they eventually retrieved tarps to bundle up the optimistic students.
Owens admitted that although the physical aspects of the trip were grueling, the most dramatic times were actually inside the classroom.
“The academic aspect — everybody wanted the A so badly. You could feel the tension rising. As far as the physical condition, as soon as people started to get upset or feel a little miserable, we just pulled together and made a good time out of it,” he said.
A series of speakers delivered lectures in history and biology throughout the month-long experience as well. Some of these lectures were more conventional than others, Owens explained. He elaborated on how learning took place virtually anywhere whether the students were sitting in kayaks or sitting inside a classroom at the Walter Rice Center.
“I did a hands-on exercise with the students when they were at the Rice Center, and some of the students who didn’t seem too thrilled with history seemed sparked with this exercise because it was sort of scientific. I chose to do an exercise opposed to just lecturing,” said Alan Briceland, one of the speakers and Professor Emeritus of history at VCU.
Altogether, Footprints featured about two dozen speakers in history and biology, and the students’ grades were determined through a combination of participation, one test and a final group presentation. Carr said that after this year the focus is to refine the different academic and field aspects of the class.
“The VCU faculty who were originally involved in developing the course started meeting back in October of 2013. We pretty much started planning routes and coming up with ideas from day one,” Parent said.
He added that once the faculty got everything approved through the different academic departments, their preparation really kicked into full swing. Carr said that after collaborating with Parent and ensuring the support of the OAP he approached his department head with a tentative plan to ask for permission to proceed.
“My entire department had to sign off on it and they were basically just like ‘sure, if that’s how you want to spend your summer.’ The history department chair was just kind of like ‘yeah, sounds lovely,’” Carr said.
Aside from the cost of the six credits there were several factors that contributed to making the trip as affordable as possible for students, Carr said. He said this included Parent and the OAP providing the gear for the trip, the biology department buying some additional gear, and the dean of the humanities and sciences as well as the Rice center both providing a few thousand dollars to cover student fees.
“The Center for Teaching Excellence also awarded me a small grant which was really probably the tipping point in making this happen,” Carr said. “By taking the financial consideration off the table it freed us up to pick people based off their applications and interviews, not whether or not they could afford it.”