Sterling College is grateful for the support The Endeavor Foundation provided to advance the development of our Global Field Studies program. The first year of funding, in fiscal year 2016, made it possible for Sterling to continue to support this important program and simultaneously innovate by engaging faculty in the design of semester-long field courses that led to the launch of a pilot program in the Southwestern United States last spring.

With this new field semester in place, Sterling doubled the number of field days offered per student, effectively expanding its field program by one hundred percent.  The ten-week length of the program and 12-credit course load for students allowed our faculty to offer a truly integrated field curriculum, including co-requisite course elements in three major areas of study—Ecology, Environmental Humanities, and Outdoor Education.  The semester pilot also enabled the College to explore the development of  other long-term and potentially year-round programs.

22223168505_735472ec13_kPiloting this program has given Sterling the foundation it needs to confidently and intelligently expand the Southwest Field Semester from 12 to 15 credits (from ten to 12 weeks in length), resulting in a course that fills an entire semester. Positive student response to the experience has also provided valuable internal guidance and direction in our efforts to develop a second similarly integrative field semester in a new course area, most likely by lengthening the current two-week program in sustainable agriculture in Chiapas, Mexico.

It is worth emphasizing that the length of the field semesters sets them apart from the other  programs on offer, which vary in length from two to four weeks.  The full semester gives students 84 continuous days in the field and affords them a singular opportunity for focused, immersive learning about diverse landscapes and cultures.  The expeditionary nature of the programs allows the student to become competent at working closely with others in a full range of environmental and social conditions.  This small group intensive experience allows for the development of communication, problem solving, and decision making skills that are transferable to other aspects of student’s lives.  Last spring, ten Sterling College students spent 70 days in the pristine American southwest, traveling and living as a small, dynamic group as they explored a curriculum in natural history and cultural studies with an emphasis on expedition skills. The 12-credit program blended three courses.

27131927011_386c916691_k-1Desert Expedition and Field Camp Skills trained students in all aspects of field camp and wilderness travel. Students practiced field camp management, group management, food planning, purchasing and preparation, and backcountry cooking, as well as wilderness-specific skills such as trip planning, backpacking skills, map use and navigation, on and off trail travel, small group decision making, stove and fire use, backcountry logistics, and considerations for travel in desert environments.

Ancestral Lifeways included cultural studies of ancient peoples of the Southwest, including Mogollan, Hohokam, Sinaguan, Ancestral Puebloan, and Athabascan groups. Students and faculty explored the creation and arrival stories of these peoples, primal lifeways, subsistence methods and worldviews, as well as modern anthropological perspectives to gain a deeper sense of the relevance of the challenges ancient peoples faced in relation to the challenges we face today.

The Natural History of the Southwest involved in-depth exploration of the plants, animals, landforms, and weather patterns of the Southwest and how the interplay among these elements of the natural world created such a unique place. Students deepened their understanding of ecology as they explored how the combination of climate, vegetation and geology created the synergy that makes the Southwest a distinct ecoregion. Along the way, they practiced the craft of natural history observation and interpretation, learning field journal techniques, and creating in-depth species accounts and systematic species lists of the new organisms they examined.

The journey that supported this course of study began in February as the Sonoran Desert winter rains began to subside and the land exploded into springtime bloom. Faculty and students explored Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Superstition Wilderness and the Verde River, Mesa Verde National Park, Grand Canyon National Park,and Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. The trip required intermediate backpacking skills, with students carrying loads of up to 35pounds as they travelled every third or fourth day to establish basecamps from which they explored the surrounding landscape. Resupply days and rest days were interspersed throughout the program. We have captured our students recollections of the trip and what they learned from it in a video that will follow this report and be featured on the Sterling College blog and website.

Sterling is fortunate to count among its faculty an instructor, David Gilligan, who has a long-standing passion for a programs such as these. David serves as the chair of the faculty committee with oversight for our field programs.  He completed advanced planning and scouting for this course prior to The Endeavor Foundation grant, allowing him to know exactly what needed to be done to implement and lead the program.

26595848973_51fe7a651c_kDavid was, in essence, waiting in hopeful anticipation of an opportunity like the one presented by The Endeavor Foundation funding and was understandably thrilled when that opportunity presented itself. From the conclusion of the Southwest Field Semester to today, the funding has been used to explore new course areas and opportunities in the Southwest, as well as in California, where plans are in place to run the second field semester.


Co-leader Laura Beebe brings 15 years of wilderness education experience to the Sterling faculty, as well as extensive academic expertise in geography and cultural studies. Her specialties include ethnobiology, indigenous worldviews, natural history interpretation and birds, as well as remote wilderness travel. She lived and taught in Alaska, the American Southwest and the Intermountain West and worked for such organizations as University of Alaska, Manatowish, and Hulbert Outdoors Center prior to her appointment to the Sterling College faculty.

27131895391_02f53a6a89_kGiven Sterling College’s unusually small faculty and the desire to maintain our intimate student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1, David and Laura’s absence were perhaps more impactful than they would be at a college with a larger faculty or student-to-faculty ratio. Thus, support from the Endeavor Foundation was essential in enabling Sterling to hire adjunct faculty to cover the on-campus instructional assignments normally handled by David and Laura. This allowed us to maintain the quality of our on-campus instruction while expanding the Field Study program.

Want to see more photos from the Southwest Field Semester?  Click here!

Filed Under: Blog Ecology Environmental Humanities Global Field Studies Outdoor Education