Monday, April 21, 2014

Patagonia: an inside perspective

Kaleb Goff, a participant in the Winter 2014 program Natural History of the Patagonian Cordillera: Argentina and Chile, shares his enthusiasm for nature and experiential learning in this wonderful essay. Why not let nature be YOUR classroom?

In modern Western society, education is dominated by a paradigm that works to be as efficient as possible - imparting knowledge to students through a stream of facts and information. This form of education is particularly extreme at many universities, and millions of students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this institutionalized approach to education, aiming to absorb required facts and hopefully apply this information to a set of skills which are determined depending upon an intended career path. Around this dominating and ironic modern educational system lies a plethora of other techniques - from the autodidactical to the heavily institutionalized. Education forms also exist in a wide variety of settings, from the dark and musty concrete lecture hall of 500 students to the vast and windswept Patagonian Steppe. So called “outdoor education” is a broad educational dogma that removes the student from the classroom setting and aims to divert the constant stream of spoon-fed information, ideally creating an educational paradigm that is dynamic and question-driven, promotes the hands-on development of practical skills, and harnesses the evolutionary and evident need for the connection between humans and the more-than-human world. Outdoor education in our modern civilization fundamentally seeks balance - to balance the efficiency of institutionalized education with the advantages of outdoor education is an immense challenge and a worthy pursuit.

This course, Sierra Institute Patagonia 2014, is its own unique form of outdoor education, nuanced with its own personal challenges and triumphs. From my perspective, this course focuses particularly on combining the personal and academic aspects of being a student, which is particularly applicable due to the nature of studying natural history - it is truly happening at every moment. Also, this course has a particular focus on teaching students how to learn, which truly means breaking down the habit of instant information and promoting self-driven, question-based learning that each student has a personal relationship with and responsibility towards. The course dives headlong into the challenges of combining an intimate group dynamic with a rigorous academic schedule and the challenges that the natural world can bring to conducting classes.

My personal experience in this course has been profound, challenging and wondrous. I began this course with some background knowledge, as a 3rd year Plant Science student. I had completed basic courses and begun some of the more advanced topics in the university setting, as well as personally learning and exploring the skills of a naturalist. Reflecting on it now, I knew very little of what was taught during this course, and the academic content of the course was a perfect extension of my background knowledge. Much of what this course explored academically is not immediately taught in the university, some not taught at all (for example botany is a class generally taken late in college, and there is no class at UCSC I know of that details the entire Kingdom Plantae and its varied and beautiful life cycles). All this said, I learned a tremendous amount academically, and more specifically I learned a tremendous amount about things I love and care about immensely. This experience has been one that will continue to nourish me academically in the future.

I have gained more than ever could be formed into words and paragraphs. I gained a wider view of our home, the Earth. I gained academic knowledge that I will use to look more closely and make tighter connections in my love and exploration of this world. I learned how to travel, live and learn with a group of 10 other people, and how to relate on all of these levels simultaneously. I also gained a more open perspective of myself as an outdoor educator and facilitator, which I hope to explore more deeply in the years to come.

In conclusion - I am overwhelmed by the immensity of this experience. It is one that will continue to nourish me for the rest of my life, in my pursuit of being the deepest lover and student of the Earth that I can possibly be. Moreover, my inspiration to facilitate others in their observation and learning about our home has greatly grown, and I will not cease to share what I have learned on this trip with all I meet. My wholehearted and ardent gratitude for all that has been given to me on this trip. May it continue to shine.

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