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Ditching Books for Studying the Field

By Kammie Sumpter in Life

“I’m not against books,” said Clark environmental science professor Kathleen Perillo with a laugh. “But the best way for students to bring something home is to have them out there and engaged in whatever you’re trying to teach.”

After two years of dormancy, Perillo and geology professor Charlene Montierth are resurfacing the six-credit field studies in environmental science course in the Fall in an effort to restore 10 acres of land on Clark’s future Ridgefield campus.

A $3.1 million land gift and a $5.67 million land purchase in 2014 combined to purchase the 80 acres of land in Ridgefield that is set to become a new campus: Clark College Boschma Farms.

Until construction in 2020, 70 acres of the land will continue to be farmed while the field studies class will set aside the other 10 for an ecological restoration. “We have an opportunity to work in our own backyard,” Perillo said.

The class— “ENVS 218” in Clark’s catalog—is separated into two sections with Perillo teaching 12 students and Montierth and biology professor Erin Harwood teaching another 12.

“Maybe on paper it is structured like that, but in reality, [Perillo and Montierth] co-taught,” said former Clark student Daryn White.

Montierth said the class is split into two sections in order to teach more students, but the sections come together as one group to receive instruction from all three professors.

Harwood said each professor has their own expertise: Perillo in wildlife, Montierth in geology and herself in water quality and plants. “That’s why we’re team-teaching it, so we can all bring something different,” Harwood said.

“They really care about the students and want them to learn,” White said. He was enrolled in the pilot of the field studies class in 2011 and went on to become a teacher’s assistant.

The 10 acres on CCBF are littered with invasive species because it has been neglected for a long time, making it the ideal “outdoor classroom” for an ecological restoration, Perillo said.

The restoration will take place over a five to 10 year period. The Fall class will focus on assessing the soil, water, sediment movement and plant and animal species, Montierth said. In the long term, the field studies classes will bring the land back to its natural standing by removing invasive species, redirecting waterways and ridding the land of unnatural gravel or sand.

Partnering with other departments is also an option, Harwood said. She said she wanted to partner with Tim Kent in Clark’s surveying department to bring his students onto the land to survey it. Harwood has partnered with another Clark instructor to bring 60 of their combined students to take an initial land assessment this quarter.

“Our grand idea is to have this be a showcase piece to show the community that the college is really interested in being good stewards of the land they have charge of,” Harwood said.

All three professors agreed that they want to create an innovative learning experience for students.

“In my time here—and I’ve been here for 15 years—I’ve seen that the best learning happens in the field,” Perillo said.

Harwood said, “I know Kathleen and Charlene have both had those experiences countless times with students that just do so much better when they can actually get outside, breathe the fresh air and actually do what it is we’re talking about.”

Montierth said she wants to “expose students to a range of potential activities” because habitat restoration is a growing career field.

White said the course was all about applying what he learned in class to the field, “and a lot of creative thinking.

Perillo and Montierth taught the class twice before and conducted class field studies on Mt. St. Helens over 10-day camping trips following Spring finals week. Not only was access limited here, Perillo said, but it was also expensive due to transportation and lodging costs.

The class was originally funded by ASCC, and auditors determined that ASCC money couldn’t be used for instructional purposes, Harwood said, so they lost funding.

Without the financial burden of a land usage cost, Perillo said the class can now be self sufficient and save for a $25 student registration fee.

Harwood said without the 10-day trip and the larger fees, the class can reach a wider range of students.

White accompanied the class both times on the camping trips to Mt. St. Helens. “By the time I came home, I was ready to go back out,” he said.

Their goal on Mt. St. Helens was to study the natural recovery of a highly disturbed area, Montierth said. They camped out near Castle Rock and traveled to the mountain every day.

Montierth said a trip like this would no longer be necessary because of the accessibility of the CCBF land.

White is currently studying oceanography at the University of Washington. He said the Clark field studies class was a good transition to his current schedule because “the program up here (at UW) for oceanography is all research.”

The only difference between UW and Clark science classes, according to White, is the class size. He said the small classes at Clark are beneficial.

“You get to know the professors (at Clark), you get to know them enough to ask questions. Here (at UW), you know them enough to know their first name and that’s about it.” He encouraged students to take advantage of the small class sizes at Clark while they can, especially in field work.

White said that the class can be fruitful for anyone. “Whether or not you think you’re going to be working in an office for the rest of your life or you think you’re going to be doing actual field work, as long as you’re engaged, you’ll come away with something.”

Prospective students should realize that this class is a great commitment, Harwood said.

“It’s for the science-minded student,” Perillo said.

Before enrolling in the field studies class, White was unsure about the decision. “I was on the fence for a while; but I pulled the trigger and it ended up being really good, both in hindsight and at the time.”

Harwood put the class simply: “You get outside, have fun and learn some stuff.”

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