When the world becomes your classroom

Mondays can be rough for college students, but what if your classroom was the Colorado mountains? Or the winding streets of Prague? Or even a beach on the coast of Mexico? For students in the field quarter program in the Department of Geography & the Environment, the world is their research lab. 

“There’s no better way to learn,” DU student Sophie Fitzgerald says. “We are getting comfortable outside, and that’s a big part of field work. Getting dirty, understanding the equipment you’re working with and figuring out best practices is just so valuable.” 

The field quarter is a unique learning opportunity. Instead of signing up for a mix of classes for fall quarter like most students do, these students dedicate their entire quarter to the field quarter courses. Those four classes are scheduled back-to-back, allowing the students to travel with a small group and spend the entire quarter exploring off campus.

“Everyone on this trip is so interested in learning, and it’s so refreshing,” Fitzgerald says about her nine classmates. “Everyone here is self-selected to come and learn in a group environment, so the excitement just builds off each other.”  

Associate professor Don Sullivan has felt that excitement about the field quarter for the past two decades, ever since he launched the program in 2000. 

“I love the whole program,” Sullivan says. “It’s a really rewarding experience. When we talk to students who are graduating, they identify their field quarter experience as the single best thing that they did at DU.”

The quarter begins with several days in the Colorado mountains collecting sediment and tree cores and getting comfortable doing hands-on research. Students then take those skills on the road and travel to New Mexico and Arizona, where the highlights include conducting field investigations in the desert and analyzing a supervolcano. Associate professor Mike Kerwin teaches that second session, Geology and Ecology of the Southwest.

“It just brings to life what you are trying to study in a book,” Kerwin explains. “The goal of today’s students who are studying the environment is to make a difference and to understand the damages that are happening as a result of human impact. We want you to take all your knowledge and apply it with hands-on learning.” 

After their time in the Southwest, the students take their learning international with a two-week trip to the Czech Republic, where they focus on history, mapping and field work with associate professor Mike Daniels. The quarter closes out with a camping trip in Mexico, taking a closer look at coral reef ecology and endemic plants. 

“We camp on the beaches in Mexico for 18 nights,” says Sullivan, who teaches the Mexico section. “It’s pretty hard to beat — pulling up on the beach right around sunset, setting up camp and having a discussion around the campfire, then waking up and having a lecture on the beach.” 

Sullivan also has the pleasure of teaching the first class of the field quarter, allowing him to watch the students grow in their learning over the quarter. 

“It’s really a remarkable transition,” he says. “Each trip provides them with more expertise, background and tools in their toolbox to understand what they are seeing.”  

And for this ambitious group of students, the learning doesn’t end when lecture hours are over. 

“When you’re with like-minded peers that are as excited and passionate about the same thing you are, you have those late-night conversations: ‘What is our place in the world as stewards?’ ‘What are the impacts of climate change?’” says senior Chloe Chalekian. “Everyone has this zest for life and an adventurous spirit. That passion rubs off on everyone else, and they want to know more.”

Below are photos taken by Dana Grad, a student in the 2019 field quarter. Click image to see larger versions.

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