During the spring semester, a group of fourteen Eastern Connecticut State University biology students traveled to the Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran deserts as part of a new global field course. On this trip, students had the opportunity to participate in an intensive one-week field experience in the American Southwest with Professors Brett Mattingly and Matthew Graham. The professors wanted to use the course to demonstrate to their students the many misconceptions about deserts. “Many of these students, true New Englanders, had never visited a desert and pictured them as barren expanses of sand and cacti,” said Graham. “We wanted this field course to blow their minds! Deserts are so much more than that.”
Many students who went on the trip were thankful for the opportunity to apply what they’ve been learning in the classroom in a more practical setting. Student Jonathan Henault said of his experience, “I think these types of global field courses are valuable because they allow students to experience the subjects they are currently studying close up. This type of exposure, at least in my case, enhanced my understanding and increased my interest in desert ecosystems.” This experience was informative and eye-opening for students and gave them the opportunity to apply what they’d been learning in the classroom in new and exciting ways. Rather than conducting research or experiments in the comfort of a lab, these students got up-close and personal with scorpions and snakes in a setting that was completely unfamiliar to them. “I think the most challenging part of this trip was actually getting to sleep when there were so many exciting things to see and do,” Henault said.
In the field, the class also discussed historical and environmental factors, such as climate change and tectonic events, which shaped the current distributions of deserts and the organisms that inhabit them. Graham described the importance of making these observations: “By understanding how our fragile desert ecosystems have responded to historical climate change, such as the period of warming that has occurred since the last glacial period, we will be better equipped to predict, and thus mitigate, effects of ongoing and future changes in climate.”
Students were offered unique opportunities that they couldn’t have experienced in the classroom. Some of these opportunities included camping at the base of the Sierra Nevada, exploring Death Valley National Park, where they visited the location with lowest altitude in North America, and coming face-to-face with a rattlesnake! By traveling to these locations, students were able to see for themselves the plant and animal species that populate this arid region.