WSU programs partner to get more students outside

Students gathered on the shore of the Salmon River.
Students gathered on the shore of the Salmon River to hear Daniel Auerbach, a postdoctoral researcher in WSU’s Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences, talk about salmon migration.

WSU School of the Environment professor Alex Fremier believes there is no substitute for students immersing themselves in the environments they study. But figuring out how to get them to those environments, feed and shelter them, and keep them safe is outside his area of expertise. That’s why, when he takes his class on a field trip, he relies on the trained professionals at WSU’s Outdoor Recreation Center to handle the logistics.

Fremier’s river management class takes a trip to Idaho every September to go rafting and kayaking. While he is focused on preparing academic content for the trips, the ORC is reserving vans, handling trip registration, gathering tents and sleeping bags, and contracting with the rafting company.

“My goal is to create an exciting learning opportunity that students are going to remember, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the ORC’s help,” Fremier said. “Between getting the students prepped, calming the nerves of first-time campers, conducting ice breakers, and transporting the equipment, they do a lot to make these trips happen.”

An unforgettable learning experience

ORC’s partnership with Fremier began 10 years ago. Since then, Jonathan Stahl, associate director of outdoor recreation and student development in University Recreation, estimates his team has helped take about 400 students into the wilderness over the course of 14 trips.

“It works great because the instructors can focus on what they do really well and we get to do what we do really well, which is organize outdoor adventures for students,” Stahl said. “It is a great example of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs collaborating in a way that is very synergistic.”

Many students do not have camping gear or cars, putting excursions like these out of reach, said student Brooke Stutzer, who participated in Fremier’s class trip this September. The ORC is instrumental in making these trips possible.

Stutzer, who had never been rafting before the September trip, said she experienced many memorable moments. She recalled camping on a sandbar and looking up to see an incredible view of the Milky Way in the dark night sky. She got the thrill of her life when she and her classmates shot through class IV rapids the next day and her guide let her steer the raft before heading to shore.

Just as memorable for Stutzer was seeing firsthand what she had only heard about in class and seen pictures of in books.

“We hear about the Columbia River Basalts in all our environmental classes, and on this trip, I got to float over the exact spot that was once the edge of our continent before the tectonic plates moved and see the wavy and pillared rock formations,” she said. “It was a very cool experience.”

Stutzer said she is a visual learner, and being able to see firsthand how the river shapes the landscape and gives life to vegetation, birds, and salmon helped her better understand their interconnectedness in a fragile ecosystem. That engagement and deep understanding is the goal, Fremier said.

“The students are in a boat, their eyes are wide open, and they are engaged,” Fremier said. “I can’t get the same reaction by giving a presentation in a classroom.”

Stahl had a similar assessment of the students’ experience.

“It was neat to see the students surrounded by water and using all their senses to help them grasp what they were experiencing, and their eyes widened as they realized what a special opportunity it was for them to raft the river,” said Stahl. “I’m happy that the ORC can play a role in something so impactful, so magical for students.”

Faculty and staff interested in partnering with the ORC can contact Stahl, jmstahl@wsu.edu.

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