Contact with nature in a learning environment gives students a breath of fresh air on campus
By Katie Stannard
It’s a simple and timeless concept: go outside.
During this pandemic, going outside offers restoration, recreation, respite. For University of Michigan faculty using outdoor space at Nichols Arboretum, going outside this fall highlights those same benefits while providing in-person learning-lab opportunities during a largely virtual semester. We caught up with faculty and students for their perspectives on the outdoor classroom experience.
Different mushrooms in a compartmented box collected for Tim James’s Biology of Fungi class.
Fungi Biology in Real Life and Online
Tim James, professor of fungal taxonomy and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, held his annual “how to collect mushrooms” introduction at the Arb for Biology of Fungi (EEB 468). On the kind of blue-skied, sunny day that bespeaks limitless possibilities, James and 25 students emerged from the woods, baskets in hand, looking like they’d come from a picnic.
After exploring the Arb, they shared their mushroom and fungus finds through a show-and-tell on the hillside above the peony garden, spread out in small, socially-distant groups. Everyone wore masks consistently. James said he’s “trying all sorts of instructional types—six field trips and recorded lectures, with a virtual format for all,” so students who can’t attend will have the same materials.
Normally class field trips would include weekend-long visits to other habitats, amended this year to be held only at the Arb. And the response from the students? James noted that “some people are excited, some are not here, some are not totally comfortable with in-person classes—totally reasonable.” He concluded that taking his class outdoors is “a nice opportunity for us; we’re lucky to have the resources.”
Students in Tim James’s Biology of Fungi pause to examine powdery mildew—itself a fungus—on peonies in the Nichols Arboretum peony garden. Talking about how COVID-distancing limits the regular sharing of the fungi the students collected, James said, they’d usually “pass things around and sniff them and taste them—as they have a distinct smell and taste—and get closer. It’s sort of challenging.”
It’s All about the Here and Now
On a cool, cloudy day that hinted at rain, German-language students settled into folding chairs and blankets spread in a wide circle on the green hillside near the Geddes Avenue entrance to the Arb. “Being outside, being in the greenery, is such a counterpoint, an energetic experience,” said Karein Goertz, lecturer in German.
Schedule and weather permitting, the Residential College (RC) German 191 and 291 students meet for lunch and practice conversational German, followed by regular class sessions. Goertz and co-teacher Carla Cribari shared that “it’s important to see the gestures and hear the voice” when learning a language.
Goertz said that she’s always loved the Arb, and really wanted her first-year students to get to know it. “It’s calming and invigorating—being amidst the trees allows us to slow down and be present.”
Tim James’s Biology of Fungi class walks back to the Arb entrance after collecting mushrooms. Matthaei-Nichols has long advocated for direct contact with nature as a way to destress. “It’s calming and invigorating—being amidst the trees allows us to slow down and be present,” observes Karein Goertz, a lecturer in German and another faculty member who conducts classes in the Arb..
She also highlighted the important, now often-missing sense of community as they sat in a circle, mindful of social distancing, taking their masks off to eat and breathe fresh air—a welcome tidbit of routine in an atypical time.
“With screens we multitask so much. In nature, it brings you into the present, the here and now of it.” Mindful of the variety of concerns that preclude some students from meeting in person, Goertz and Cribari meet with them separately.
Comments from students mirror these sentiments.
Zoe Bugnaski, class of ’24, from Kalamazoo, Mich., remarked that being able to meet in person outside “lets you speak more fully,” without the lag time due to zoom. She was impressed that in her first week at Michigan, almost everyone was wearing masks outside and around campus.
Even floor life in the dorms has been translated to zoom—with a few students assigned per RA, group chats were utilized for connecting. Lydia Forehan, class of ’23, from Commerce Township, Mich., had been excited about her East Quad single, until the reality of online classes except for German sunk in. Though the RC language classes have separate dining rooms during “normal” times, “since that’s not possible, it’s nice to have in-person meeting time so we can have conversations and see each other,” says Forehan.
Matthaei-Nichols Field Services Manager Jeff Plakke talks with restoration ecology students about restoration projects at the Arb.