Academics

Why study in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska?

Journaling on Root Glacier. Photo credit: Karen Mager

Journaling on Root Glacier. Photo credit: Karen Mager

In North America’s largest international complex of protected wilderness lands, rapid environmental change, national conservation policy, and subsistence livelihoods intersect. Here students engage as investigators and participants in nuanced park-people conflicts as well as small-scale solutions to living off-grid in community.
Lecture. Photo credit: Jesse Wright. 

Lecture. Photo credit: Jesse Wright. 

Hiking on the glacier. Photo credit: Shawn Olson.

Hiking on the glacier. Photo credit: Shawn Olson.

Overview

Summer 2017 dates: June 22, 2017 - August 9, 2017

During this interdisciplinary expedition, in one and three-week backpacking trips through rugged, trail-less Alaska wilderness (including camping and hiking on glaciers), students will investigate the politics of Alaska’s protected lands and inquire into personal roles in wildlands preservation and conservation. Alaska Wrangell Mountains Field Studies considers geologic time and geomorphic process questions such as, “How did the Wrangell Mountains form and what is the history of the glaciers they support?” Hiking up from the valley floor, we ask questions such as, “What are the successional changes in fluctuating glacier-edge environments?” “What are the ecological characteristics of unique alpine habitat where Dall sheep, brown bear, and mountain goat overlap?” Using square meter plots, we will count vegetative species and discover how botanical diversity is scale-dependent. We will uncover how there can be areas with more spiders than there is food for spiders to eat. Because Alaska's parks are uniquely mandated to allow continued traditional use by local rural residents, we will ask social questions such as, "How do people maintain bush lifestyles in the face of increasing tourism?" Throughout the program we will also study adaptations of species to the stresses of sub-arctic existence, and see first-hand the effects of climate change on the landscape. Following in the footsteps of Darwin and Linnaeus, we will keep a daily natural history field journal, including Grinnell Technique, writing and drawing our observations for a permanent personal record of our time in the Wrangells. 

Content is delivered through lectures and discussions, course readings, field activities, visits with local experts, encounters with ongoing park research, extended backcountry excursions, and student projects. The program generally progresses from faculty-led instruction in the beginning (i.e., more lectures and readings) to student-led critical evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. If students are interested in being scholars on particular topics, we tailor the summer to meet individual research interests. 

Learning Objectives

-Describe the ecosystems of Southcentral Alaska in terms of flora, fauna, and ecological processes, including threats, conservation, and ongoing change.

-Explain geologic history and processes at work in the Wrangell Mountains on multiple spatial and temporal scales, including glacial processes and range formation.

-Summarize the cultural, political, and management history within the Wrangell-St. Elias region, including indigenous Native and homesteader perspectives, policies governing use (federal, state, local), and local community involvement.

-Design a field research project, collecting field data, managing, synthesizing, and presenting interpretations of this data to peers, faculty, and the public both in writing and oral presentations.

-Read critically, discuss, and evaluate primary literature in ecology, geology, and social science.

-Apply theoretical concepts of wildness vs. wilderness, management vs. preservation, and sustainable development vs. sustainability to real world conservation initiatives. 

-Learn field observation and note-taking skills, including methods for documenting and sharing findings in diverse formats.

Alaska Wrangell Mountains Field Studies is suitable for any adventurous student in good physical condition; all necessary skills will be taught and previous backpacking experience is not required. As the program’s overarching goal, students will employ skills and extensive knowledge about the Wrangell-St. Elias region — emblematic of dynamic and fragile landscapes— to understand ecological, geophysical and cultural change from scientific, social scientific, and humanity perspectives. Students will depart better able to critically evaluate the role of humanity in stewarding mountain wildness/wilderness in other places worldwide. 

Prerequisites

Freshman through senior standing and one introductory course in Biology, Geology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Political Science, or other relevant discipline.

Please send a recommendation from your academic advisor if you don’t meet the prerequisites. The letter should include your advisor’s contact information and a brief statement explaining why you are qualified to participate. 

Course Credits

We teach three courses with distinct objectives in an integrated format in the field. Students receive 16 quarter hour credits (10-11 semester credit equivalency) from The Evergreen State College for: 

Natural History of Alaska (5 credits). Survey of natural history of Wrangell-St. Elias ecosystems, including an introduction to scientific, social-scientific and arts-based research methods for field studies. Introduction to Wrangell-St. Elias species identification, ecosystem characteristics (including rock formations), and critical field skills such as generating and refining inquiry questions from on-site observations, optimizing methods, interpreting data, and presenting findings and placing research in a broader context, such as through field journaling and scientific writing.

Applied Field Research on Dynamic Landscapes (5 credits). Field investigation, using the scientific method, of environmental problems including human-environment interactions affecting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. Extended field research on flora, fauna, biotic communities and ecological relationships, and glaciology, geomorphology, and landscape evolution at selected sites within the park.

People and Protected Areas (6 credits). Field study, using social science and arts-based research, of relationships among cultural groups and the environment and issues of sustainability. Writing creatively about protected areas, the imaginative process integrates literary and visual arts. Employing regional case studies, students assess historical and contemporary thought and use of protected lands, and outcomes of different environmental policies and land/wildlife management, including human and natural consequences.

Field Study Phases

Through the 7-week quarter, student learning and activities progress through four general phases:

Phase I:  Introduction to Landscape - Pieces, Patterns and Processes

During Week One of the field studies, an introduction to people, place, and program expectations. We also test out gear, student fitness, and plan logistics for group travel. 

Phase II: 

Starting in Week Two on a week-long backpacking trip, faculty provide tools for students to take a more detailed, hands-on, in situ look at the land and its life, including through botany, geology, wildlife, history & culture, management policy and ecological relationships. 

Phase III:  Projects

Students work in small groups on one of many projects offered by faculty. Project preparation week is in McCarthy during Week Three of the program. During this week each student creates an Individual Learning Contract to direct the types of techniques and subjects they will focus on in their field portfolio. Research takes place over the three following weeks in the backcountry (Weeks Four, Five and Six). Reading discussions, seminars, and faculty presentations continue throughout the research period.

Phase IV:  Final Synthesis & Presentation

In Week Seven of the field studies, students assemble findings into written and oral presentations. Local land managers, visiting researchers and community members are often interested to hear the results of student studies. 

Classroom in town at the Old Hardware Store. Photo credit: Ben Shaine

Classroom in town at the Old Hardware Store. Photo credit: Ben Shaine

 

Examining an insect on the glacier. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

Examining an insect on the glacier. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

“The program helped me think about career plans by assessing what I truly enjoy.”
Glacier research project. Photo credit: Ben Shaine. 

Glacier research project. Photo credit: Ben Shaine. 

Ice cave. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

Ice cave. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

Natural history field journaling. Photo credit: Shawn Olson. 

Natural history field journaling. Photo credit: Shawn Olson. 

Arnica. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

Arnica. Photo credit: Karen Mager. 

Studying varved lake sediments on McCarthy Creek. Photo credit: Ben Shaine.

Studying varved lake sediments on McCarthy Creek. Photo credit: Ben Shaine.

“Learning while walking through the landscape features was amazing, plus reading scientific papers about things we could go and personally look at was incredible.”
Final presentations of research projects. Photo credit: Cobi Sesslar.

Final presentations of research projects. Photo credit: Cobi Sesslar.

Learning geologic maps. Photo credit: Leif Mjos

Learning geologic maps. Photo credit: Leif Mjos

Grades

Students receive written narrative evaluations based on The Evergreen State College official grading policy. 

How to transfer credit

If you have a question about credit acceptance at your home institution or in a particular academic department, contact Dr. Aliette Frank (aliette@wrangells.org). 

Students throughout the United States and abroad have participated in our program and have successfully transferred credit to their home universities. 

 

Other Media:

 

Banner photo: Studying on the river bank. Photo credit: Jesse Wright.