Amanda Giracca in Orion Magazine:
Imagine: you have been studying marine invertebrates in the laboratory. Your professor has shown you videos of bioluminescence; you understand the chemical reaction that allows an organism to glow in the dark. But then you are on your first trip to Belize, wading into a lagoon at night and watching the tar-black sea illuminate around your body, the swish of your hand through water leaving a blaze of blue stars that twinkle momentarily and go dark again. You might be moved to tears, as a student of Gretchen Gerrish’s was.
Imagine never having stepped on dirt before, like many of Bobby Espinoza’s students at California State University, Northridge, who hail from the greater Los Angeles area, and who show up to their first field excursion with Samsonite suitcases and inadequate footwear. They’re used to going to the mall on the weekend, not into the woods.
Imagine a morning like the morning Steve Trombulak took his students to Middlebury College’s bird-banding station: the mist was rising and through the fog they saw a red fox leap for its morning prey; then the beavers started slapping their tails in the water, and, as if on cue, a flock of great blue herons flew right over their heads. You might be compelled to exclaim — unironically, as Trombulak insists his student did — “Wow, this is better than Discovery Channel!”
Moments like these are transformational.
And this transformation teaches empathy. Students become less absorbed in themselves and start paying attention to the world around them. They become aware of other beings, of their own impacts. It teaches autonomy, too. Harry Greene, the Cornell ecologist, likes to talk about his students during their first field sojourn. At first “they bitch and moan about having to ID these little brown birds and about the fact it’s wet.” But by the end of the semester they’re seasoned naturalists who “becalm their fellow students in order to see the rattlesnake behind a rock, or noose a fence lizard to see if it’s a female or a male.”