Learning through doing in Alaska

Watch Video

A powerful, immersive course at the edge of wilderness helps Stanford students understand the connections between humans, nature and sustainability.

On an alpine perch high above Alaska's Glacier Bay, a dozen students huddle around Zachary Brown as he describes, in vivid detail, the enormous ice sheets that once blanketed the region, when he pauses mid-sentence to point out a flock of birds flying in V-formation in the distance.

"Look guys, sandhill cranes," says Brown, an instructor for a Stanford Sophomore College course that took place in Alaska last fall. "Let's have a moment of silence and just watch them."

The students fall quiet as the cranes flap slowly across the horizon, their trills audible from across the bay. The flock is a small arrowhead winging eastward when Luis Kumanduri, a sophomore at Stanford, breaks the silence to wonder aloud how Brown was able to distinguish the species of bird from so far away. Brown beams like a proud parent, delighted by the critical thinking demonstrated by the question. "The birds have a distinctive call," he says.

Go to web site to listen to the audio.

Bird calls from a flock of sandhill cranes.

Brown, who is also the executive director of the Inian Islands Institute in Alaska, shifts back to his original topic and expounds upon the unique natural history of Glacier Bay. The bay was covered in ice as recently as two centuries ago, when the first Europeans passed through, but was ice-free during famed naturalist John Muir's inaugural visit to Alaska in 1879.

Everything the students see before them, Brown says, from the snow-shrouded peak of Mount Fairweather in the cloudy distance to the steep, spruce-covered shores of the waters far below, was carved by ponderous glaciers that once crept across the land. At the height of their power, those glaciers towered more than 4,000 feet above sea level and formed a monolithic ice sheet stretching from Alaska to Cape Cod.

This ice-hewn landscape is an ideal place to explore the relationships and interactions between humans and the environment – the main theme of the two-week course. The geology and climate of Alaska are fundamental starting points for understanding the region's social-ecological systems, Brown says, for it was those same glaciers that sculpted the Inside Passage, a windy maze of fjords and inlets that is home to some of the most productive fisheries on Earth. Southeast Alaska is also one of the best places in the world for hydropower because its steep, glacially carved mountains capture much of the precipitation arriving from the Pacific Ocean and funnel that water down cascading rivers. Understanding ancient glacial-interglacial cycles also helps scientists understand and contextualize current human-caused climate change, which is affecting every aspect of the social-ecological systems in southeast Alaska.

Occasionally, Rob Dunbar, the W.M. Keck Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford, interjects to elaborate upon one of Brown's points. In this fashion, the verbal baton is passed between the course's multiple instructors and the focus of the lecture on the mount flits from earth sciences to biology to history to archaeology, all within the span of a few minutes.

As the light wanes, the chill intensifies and the group prepares for the long trek back down the mountain. But a mound of moss-covered rocks catches Brown's eye and he can't resist a final lesson. Archaeologists think this was once a cairn constructed by the Tlingit, the region's indigenous people, Brown says. "Similar structures have been discovered atop other mountains throughout the region, but their original purpose has been forgotten."

Chapter 2:

At the edge of wilderness

Sophomore College: In the Age of the Anthropocene – Coupled Human-Natural Systems of Southeast Alaska is offered every two years as part of Stanford's September Sophomore Studies Program, an eclectic mix of classes that provides undergraduates with an opportunity to plunge into a topic for three weeks just before their sophomore year.

Funded by the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and September Studies at Stanford, Sophomore College Alaska is one of the few Sophomore College courses involving an immersive, off-campus experience. "For our students who are interested in sustainability challenges, this hands-on opportunity to learn about people interacting with their resources and ecosystems provides a great and sometimes life-changing learning experience," says Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The course is focused on the study of social-ecological systems. "The students are exposed to thinking about the ecology, the geology, and the biophysics of the landscape in addition to thinking about the social systems side, and how those are integrated," says Elsa Ordway, a doctoral student in the department of Earth System Science and a co-instructor of the course.

For Dunbar, a climate scientist at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, Southeast Alaska is the ideal location for exploring social-ecological issues. "It's hard to imagine a better place that is resource rich, lightly populated, and at the edge of wilderness where we can look at all of these things together," says Dunbar, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Chapter 3:

Not 'just another adventure'

With more than 100 students vying for one of 12 spots in the course, choosing the final applicants was a challenge. To help, the instructors developed a code, says Aaron Strong, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources and a co-instructor of the course.

"Our code was JAA, which stood for Just Another Adventure," Strong says. "If a student just talked about how cool it would be to go to Alaska, that wasn't enough for us. This course is about understanding the relationship between human beings and the natural world, and how those relationships are managed. We wanted students who were interested in that."

The level of outdoor experience of the chosen students varied considerably. An Eagle Scout as a youth, Chris Yeh had been camping, hiking, and canoeing, so the nature aspect of the course was a big draw for him. "It's totally different from my major, which is computer science," Yeh says. "I thought that it would be a great opportunity to explore something new and see a different side of education at Stanford that I wouldn't get by just taking classes for my major."

On the other end of that spectrum was Sydney Walls, who is majoring in anthropology. She had never camped before but wanted to push out of her comfort zone. "I chose this course because I knew I would never come to Alaska or go camping in a very cold area on my own," Walls says.

Walls says she initially worried that her inexperience would hold back the group. "I had no idea what to buy or wear," she says. "I thought I was just going to be a huge burden, that I was going to make everyone walk slower and be forced to help me. But that wasn't the case."

A cloud-covered view across Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska

A cloud-covered view across Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. (Photo: Ker Than)

Elizabeth Hillstrom portrait
It's just so much bigger than I could have imagined. It's hard to describe the scale of the forests, the trees, and the extent of the natural habitat here.

Elizabeth Hillstrom

Stanford Undergrad

Even the more outdoorsy students were humbled by what they encountered in Alaska. "I had never been to Alaska before," says Elizabeth Hillstrom, a Stanford undergrad majoring in mechanical engineering. "I don't know what I was expecting, but I don't think this was it. It's just so much bigger than I could have imagined. It's hard to describe the scale of the forests, the trees, and the extent of the natural habitat here."

Chapter 4:

A better way to learn

On a dewy fall morning, the students tramp through the Tongass National Forest, laying long lengths of tape on the forest floor. They are using a transect sampling method that they learned moments earlier to systematically quantify plant diversity in patches of old and new growth forests.

"It's a great experience for the students," says Aaron Furrer, a management science and engineering double major and one of the Sophomore College assistants. "They're not getting the data from a book they read somewhere, they're collecting it themselves. They're learning the plant names, they're learning how to measure the trees, and they're learning the scientific process. Later, they're going to analyze the data and be able to compare it to data collected from this same spot two years ago to see how the forest has changed. It's a much better way to learn."

Go to web site to view the video.

As part of the forest section of the course, the students spent time in Alaska's Tongass National Forest surveying the trees and learning about how forest managers nurture and maintain their precious wood resource. (Video: Kurt Hickman)

The forest survey is just one of many hands-on activities that the students will participate in over the next few weeks. The Sophomore College Alaska course is broken up into four resource units: forest, fisheries, energy and tourism. Students learn about the challenges and complexities of sustainably managing each of these resources through a combination of lectures, experiential learning, data collection activities, thought experiments, reflection and discussions. They are exposed to a broad cross-section of Alaskan society, spending time with salmon fishermen, hatchery workers, forest managers, loggers, mill-owners, tour-operators, tourists, city officials, and Tlingit elders.

These connections are integral to understanding how humans and the environment interact, says Scott Harris, an instructor at the Sitka Sound Science Center, a nonprofit teaching organization that provides a home base for Sophomore College Alaska in the small community of Sitka, where most of the instruction takes place. "What we try to do is facilitate opportunities for them to come to their own conclusions," Harris says. "Educational experience is so much more powerful if students can process the information we help provide to come up with their own set of values and their own ideas."

While the students receive instruction in all four resource areas, they are divided into groups and assigned particular units to focus on. At the end of the course, the groups present what they've learned to their classmates and to members of the Sitka community.

Kumanduri, a math major from Connecticut, is in the fisheries group and is surprised to discover how well the industry is doing in Alaska. "The fisheries on the East Coast where I grew up have done terribly," Kumanduri says. "I was coming up here expecting the people to be talking about how the fish populations were struggling."

But in fact, the opposite is true. While Alaska's salmon population did experience a period of decline in past decades, today it is thriving, due in large part to fishing regulations enacted by the state. Kumanduri says learning this gives him hope for the future. "I was like, 'Wow, this can really be managed sustainably at a large scale.' It just made me rethink what I thought about sustainability. If we can do that for salmon, we can come up with a strategy that works for the other resources we have."

Go to web site to view the video.

Students get their hands dirty learning about the lifecycle of Alaskan salmon and get a glimpse of the delicate balance between economics and sustainability that the state's fishing industry strives to maintain. (Video: Kurt Hickman)

Zhi Ping Teo's revelation is of a different sort. "At first glance, the four units seem to be separate, but over the length of the course you come to realize that they're all really interconnected, and that what they all have in common is the human aspect," says Teo, a political science major who grew up in Singapore.

While it's not required, the instructors also strongly encourage students to keep a journal of their experiences while in Alaska. Blaire Hunter, a double major in Earth systems and economics, is one of the most diligent journal writers in the group. "I want to make sure everything I'm getting out of the day, I'm taking with me, because we are learning so much," Hunter says.

A journal writer since she was a child, Hunter uses her journal to make small mental notes to her future self. "Things like, 'I'm sitting here on a rock, and a sea otter just popped its head up,'" Hunter says. "They're such small moments, but I don't want to lose them. It's like grabbing a handful of things from the bottom of a stream. You get the big rocks, but all the sand sifts through your fingers. I'm trying to hold on to some of those pieces of sand as well."

Chapter 5:

A different way of thinking

The final days of the course are spent at the Inian Islands Institute, a field school in the Alaskan wilderness, nestled between Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park. The Institute is an 8-hour boat ride from Sitka, but the time passes pleasantly. The students sip coffee and hot chocolate and use the precious downtime to catch up on their reading, nap, or simply watch the breathtaking scenery glide by.

Occasionally, the charter boat cuts the chugging motor and slows to a crawl so its passengers can better glimpse a pod of wild orcas cutting through rain-dappled waves or feeding humpbacks spouting mist as they twirl in the water.

Blair Hunter passes the time during a long boat ride by writing in her journal

Blaire Hunter passes the time during a long boat ride by writing in her journal. (Photo: Ker Than)

A rainbow is visible from the stern of a charter boat traveling through the Inside Passage

A rainbow is visible from the stern of a charter boat traveling through the Inside Passage. (Photo: Ker Than)

Before arriving at the Inian Islands Institute, the boat makes a detour to Hoonah, a mostly Tlingit community on Chichagof Island. In recent years, the community has ramped up its efforts to attract tourists. An old salmon cannery has been restored and converted into a museum and, just offshore, half-submerged concrete pilings mark the spot of a future cruise ship dock. Hoonah provides an opportunity for the students to compare different models of tourism in Alaska.

"There was a sharp contrast between Sitka and Hoonah," says Andrew Paiva, a sophomore from California who intends to major in human biology. "In Sitka, there's a very vibrant commercial fishing community and profitable tourism fishery. But in Hoonah, which is now almost entirely dependent on cruise ships for income, they no longer have a commercial industry and don't have demand for a tourism fishery, although fishing is a very important part of the traditional Tlingit culture. It was really interesting to see what Hoonah has decided to prioritize over other things that, in the past, were important."

The next day, the boat pulls up alongside a floating wood dock, where the students transfer to kayaks and paddle through a shallow inlet into a small lagoon and up to another dock. The students have arrived at the Hobbit Hole, a serene, five-acre property consisting of three houses, a workshop and the dock. The Hobbit Hole is the heart of the Inian Islands Institute and the students' home for the next three days.

Before settling in, the students are asked to surrender their smartphones to avoid unnecessary distractions, and everyone does so without complaint. After nearly three weeks together, the students have grown close, many of them opting to spend the nights crammed together in a single large loft. "We talk all night and we've really learned a lot about each other in a very short amount of time," Paiva says.

Lingering clouds and the threat of rain force the instructors to cancel plans for a much-anticipated plane tour over Glacier Bay, but the students find other ways to occupy their time. Instead, they hike to a local beach to study local wildlife and set out on an 8-mile kayaking trip around the islands. "I was wet, and cold, and literally soaked from my shoulders down, but it was sheer magic to be able to see whales, and sea otters, and sea lions all around me," Yeh says. "If anything, the rain just made everything more majestic."

Later at dinner, Dunbar raises a glass to toast their hosts and the students. "I go to a lot of wilderness places but it's not many where I feel like I've entered some kind of sacred ground," he says. "But I actually feel that way about this island and the way that nature coexists with people here."

The students also use their time at the Hobbit Hole to work on their final projects and to reflect back on all that they've seen and heard. A frequent topic of conversation was the meaning of wilderness and how the students' ideas about wilderness evolved during their time in Alaska. "One of the big questions is, should wilderness be preserved for humans to access? Or should it be allowed for its own sake, free from human influence?" Hillstrom says. "I think I would say that I fall on the side that humans should be allowed to access it. What I've learned from some of the native people that we visited is that humans can exist in an environment without necessarily harming it. I now think that it is possible to visit a place and appreciate a place without degrading it."

Alaska has changed the other students as well. Mateusz "Matt" Wojtaszek, a chemical engineering major who grew up in Chicago, says his experience is causing him to reexamine the way he lives his life. "I never really knew where my food was coming from, where my power was coming from, or anything like that. I was really disconnected from the land that I was using," Matt says. "But here, people know what they're taking from the environment and what they're putting back in. It's a very different way of thinking, and I think I'll try to carry that on past this Sophomore College."

Story Credits

Writer: Ker Than

Videos: Kurt Hickman

Aerial Footage: Rob Dunbar

Photography: Blair Hunter, George Philip LeBourdais, Kalvin Parker, Zhi Ping Teo, Ker Than, Chris Yeh

Design/Art Direction: John Holleman