Contact with nature in a learning environment gives students a breath of fresh air on campus
By Katie Stannard
Outdoor class Arboretum
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.
Collected mushrooms for fungi class

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.”
Biology of Fungi class with collecting baskets

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.”

Outdoor class walks along river
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.”
Outdoor class in the Arb

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.
Jeff Plakke tour in the Arb

Matthaei-Nichols Field Services Manager Jeff Plakke talks with restoration ecology students about restoration projects at the Arb.

The Engagement Benefits of Offline and Outside
Roughly 15 classes and 1300 students will participate in some way at the Arb this fall. Catriona Mortell-Windecker, academic outreach and interpretation manager for Matthaei-Nichols, reached out to faculty in May to offer the use of our spaces for labs and classes. These include language classes, a graduate seminar in information systems, poetry, history, natural resources, museum studies, and more. 
While the heaviest use is occurring in September and October, some faculty will keep meeting as long as they can. Mortell-Windecker shared that many faculty were passionate about the engagement aspect of teaching. “A lot of faculty are stepping outside their comfort zones so their students can have as much of an in-person experience as possible,” she explains. 
Key details shared with groups include guidelines for use, recommendations for when to bring their own chairs, and importantly, the location of portable toilets.
“From the beginning, I wanted to be outside,” said Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, research scientist. She started planning early in the summer for her restoration ecology class to ensure her students had access to the people and places profiled—even if they couldn’t physically be there. Reaching out to former director Bob Grese led to her filming a series of videos at Matthaei with Jeff Plakke, general manager of landscapes, and Jeremy Moghtader, Campus Farm manager. 
On the day I joined the class, Plakke led a tour of Arb sites using the Discord app. Adlerstein-Gonzalez pioneered its use for her class, through which a presenter can address a group outdoors that’s spread out (akin to whisper sets for an art museum or similar cultural tour). But it is two-way: listeners can pose questions during Q & A time. 
Alderstein-Gonzalez emphasized the importance of fieldwork for those studying restoration ecology, saying, “You can’t be a good steward of nature if you can’t see it, feel it, fall in love with it.” 
Outdoor class in te Arb
students rediscovering the arb
Rediscovering the Arb
Maite Elizondo, Peru, who’s studying behavioral education and communication in the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, remarked, “This is vivid to be able to see and touch and have the whole experience.” Elizondo echoed another prevailing theme of the present times, that she’s “learning to live with uncertainty—for my generation, everything is instant” and that the resolution for the present times is anything but instant.
Another course that utilizes the Arb every year for field labs is EAS 509 Ecology. By email, Sheila Schueller, lecturer and academic program specialist, wrote that this year the Arb is their major field site,
“because students can easily walk to it from campus. The Arboretum truly has so many ecosystem types to offer…an ideal site for lab meetings. After our first lab several students reported that although they had been here many times . . . they now realized that there was so much more about the Arboretum that they hadn’t noticed before (such as the variety of insect chew marks left behind on leaves by the diverse insect community present there, or the glacial history that created the topography they enjoy hiking on). Even many of the remote students are located in Ann Arbor and plan on visiting the Arboretum to complete their guided self-paced remote lab experience.”
Living with Uncertainty
Holding classes outdoors isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some students have experienced challenges in getting to the Arb—with bus transportation and COVID-related route closures, a trip from Ypsilanti for one grad student took an hour. 
Others are simply not ready to be doing any coursework in person because of personal circumstances or anxiety. Some confessed that they were venturing outside for the first time in months, and some acknowledged that they’re simply waiting for everything to be shut down again. Others said they simply felt safer to be outside in the fresh air. 
pine forest in the arb
When asked about his freshman year experience thus far, Josh Khang, of Canton, Mich., admitted that he had considered other options: taking a gap year, or living at home and taking all classes virtually. Sitting in a widespread, distanced circle of classmates, eating lunch and conversing in German, he declared happily that “coming here and meeting new people was pretty worth it!” 
For those faculty and students who come together at the Arb in whatever format, the time together is prized, and a little glimmer of normalcy during extremely abnormal times. Professor Tim James summed it up: “Students are ready to be students.”
About the author:
In a normal year, author Katie Stannard would be coordinating and onboarding the summer interns at Matthaei-Nichols and helping the visitor engagement team run the visitor center at Matthaei. This year—along with a months-long closure and absent student interns and now heading into the fall semester—Katie’s been posting on our social media and writing insightful blog posts that delve into issues like students adaptation to a new way of being on campus and in class. 
Katie received her Master Gardener certification in 1999, and has years of experience with heirloom flower bulbs and small business operations. She is passionate about encouraging kids of all ages to “go outside!” and explore the natural world. Her current gardening interests include children’s gardens, native plants, and everlasting yet nonintrusive perennials. Katie volunteers for her kids’ school, for Carleton College as an alumni volunteer, and in her neighborhood to organize community events. She holds an M.A. from Carnegie Mellon University in literary and cultural theory, and a B.A. from Carleton College in English.
All photos by Katie Stannard.