This is the trip of a lifetime to some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth.

Take your Sterling education afield for an immersion into place-based learning in the American Southwest. Return refreshed by time in a wild place, enriched by the experience of learning natural history, ancient cultures, primitive skills and remote wilderness travel. Your perspectives on place and home will be positively changed forever!

This 15-credit program is offered in the Spring semester.  The experience includes:

  • 80 days on location in the Southwest
  • Traveling and living in a small group, educated by Sterling faculty
  • Integrated curriculum in natural history, cultural studies, and expedition skills


We will explore the natural world, ancient peoples, and hone our expedition skills while engaged in a 12-week adventure. Our trip begins in February as the Sonoran Desert winter rains begin to subside and the moistened land explodes into springtime bloom. We will explore Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Superstition Wilderness and the Verde River on a series of vehicle supported camps, wilderness backpacking camps and primitive camps. As the course progresses we will follow spring north, up onto the Colorado Plateau, and into the remote canyons of Grand Canyon National Park and Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Backpacking will be moderate to intermediate, with loads of up to forty five pounds. Typically we will travel every third or fourth day and establish basecamps from which we explore the surrounding landscape. Resupply days and rest days are interspersed throughout the program.

Southwest 5


The program integrates three inter-related courses which are taught concurrently, including:

Southwest 3The Desert Expedition Skills component trains students in all aspects of field camp and wilderness travel, including such skills as field camp management, group management, food planning, purchasing and preparation, backcountry cooking, tent and tarp artistry and related logistics, 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.


The Southwest 6Ancestral Lifeways component includes cultural studies of ancient peoples of the Southwest, including Mogollan, Hohokam, Sinaguan, Ancestral Puebloan and Athabascan groups. We explore the creation and arrival stories of these peoples, primal lifeways, subsistence methods and worldviews, as well as modern anthropological perspectives. We will visit well-known and little-known sites to explore ancient dwellings, granaries, rock art and other artifacts. We will learn primitive skills such as firemaking, manufacture of containers, baskets, atl-atls, darts, mats and related implements. We will explore the relevance of the challenges ancient peoples faced to the challenges we face today.


The Natural History of the Southwest component involves in-depth exploration of the plants, aniSouthwest Field Semester Immersive Studymals, landforms and weather patterns of the Southwest and how the interplay among these elements of the natural world create such a unique place. We will hone our identification skills as we learn desert plants, spring wildflowers and desert birds. We will practice the art and science of reading the landscape as we learn the geologic history of the region and the resulting spectacular volcanic and sedimentary landforms. We will deepen our understanding of ecology as we explore how the combination of climate, vegetation and geology create the synergy that makes the Southwest a distinct ecoregion. Along the way, we will practice the craft of natural history observation and interpretation, learning field journal techniques, creating in-depth species accounts and systematic species lists of the new organism we are exploring.

Small Group Dynamics explores group development, groups as systems,  norms and group climate,Small Group Dynamics: Rafting on Little Hosmer roles and leadership in groups, non-verbal and verbal communication, group influence and decision making, power and conflict in groups, and gender and other diversity in groups.  Participants will cultivate self-awareness regarding group participation, and explore what it means to be a positive group member in a range of circumstances.  Students will use both leadership and observer roles to become astute observers of group dynamics and cultivate effective communication and participation strategies in the small group setting.


The Southwest Field Semester Instructors are a uniquely qualified team of naturalists, geographers, ancestral skills practitioners and wilderness educators. Each instructor brings over a decade of experience in wilderness-based education to the program. Combined, we have spent over ten thousand days and nights outdoors.  Each instructor has their respective area of expertise which, when combined, create an amazing team:

David Gilligan, Faculty in Ecology, Field Studies Director

David brings twenty years of wilderness education experience to the program, as well as strong academic expertise in natural history and ecology. His specialties include flowering plants, birds, geology, landscape interpretation and remote wilderness travel. He lived and taught in the American Southwest for thirteen years prior to coming to Sterling College, and worked for such organizations as The Sierra Institute and Prescott College. He has been a faculty member at Sterling College for eleven years and currently directs Sterling’s field programs.

Laura Beebe, Faculty in Environmental Humanities

Laura brings fifteen years of wilderness education experience to the program, 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 has lived and taught in Alaska, the American Southwest and the Intermountain West and worked for such organizations as University of Alaska, Manatowish, Hulbert Outdoors Center, and presently Sterling College.

Matt Brummett, Rule of Five Wilderness Company

Matt brings over twenty years of wilderness experience to the program and deep expertise in Southwest ancestral lifeways. His specialties include primitive skills and wilderness travel in both primitive and modern traditions. He has lived and taught throughout the Southwest and Northern Minnesota and worked for such organizations as Thistledew, Prescott College, Cody Lundin’s Aboriginal Living Skills School, and Sterling College. Matt is the founder and sole proprietor of Rule of Five Wilderness Company.

Anne Morse, Faculty in Outdoor Education

Anne brings thirty years of experience in the field of Outdoor Education to the Southwest program.  Her specialities include leadership and facilitation, communication, group process, and social justice.  She has lived and taught in northern Minnesota, southern Texas, the American Southwest, and New England, and worked for organizations such as Outward Bound, Prescott College, and presently Sterling College.


  • Registration opens in October
  • Space is limited to 10 participants
  • A deposit of $1000 secures your spot in the program

Existing Sterling Students should contact the Registrar.  Students new to Sterling should contact the Director of Admission.

Click here to see more images  of the stunning Southwest Field Semester! And click here to learn more about Sterling College and our Global Field Studies Program.

Ready for an adventure? Explore with us!



The program costs include regular tuition, room and board and comprehensive fee. The program costs are the same as those for being on campus (the program does not cost extra). Program costs cover all air and ground travel, food, books and materials, program accommodations, and group equipment.

sun-kissed students look out over the sunny, martian landscape of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument


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

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