Geography by Rail Course Gets Students on the Road to Applying Classroom Knowledge in a Whole New Way
Mark Twain said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness," and Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Sciences Casey Allen agrees. That's a big part of why he regularly leads students on field study courses through the University of Colorado Denver Study Abroad Global Education program. "I'm all about getting students outside the four walls of a classroom, and I'm lucky to be in a department that supports that."
With senior instructor Jon Barbour, also of the geography department, Allen led the inaugural voyage of the "Geography by Rail" course through London and Paris, December 28, 2011 – January 7, 2012. Sixteen students, four graduate and twelve undergraduates, set off to study physical geography in ways they can only conceptualize while sitting in a classroom. "Students grasp concepts better when they can see them in a real-world setting," Allen says. "They actually touch and see something, and that experiential component is key in helping students connect."
From extensive experiences in his own education, as well as leading students regularly during summer term to the island of Grenada, Professor Allen knows that field study helps students apply the theories they have already learned in the classroom to real world situations. For example, in Paris students compared the Sacré-Cœur with a church directly across the street: both were built seven-hundred years ago, from the same type of rock, and share the same climate and location, but present vastly difference facades to the world today. With one building nearly pristine and the other ravaged by the passage of time, students laid hands on evidence they then used to develop theories about how these two buildings have been used and maintained. In addition, each student collaborated on a research project they presented upon their return to the University of Colorado Denver campus. As Allen stresses, "You're doing a bit of research, you're in the field gathering data, we make it useful."
Professor Allen has former students who say their world-views were changed forever by the experience of studying water quality and ocean temperatures in Grenada. He hopes students experiencing London and Paris in the context of this course will forever see urban areas differently. "Travel, when it's not done as a tourist, when you are on the ground learning something, rather than just sitting on a tour bus, destroys ethnocentricity. It brings us together as a species, and you begin to realize that everybody wants the same things in life."
For fellow faculty thinking about organizing a course like this, Prof. Allen has a few tips. He urges keeping the course as affordable as possible for the students, as this drastically increases popularity. He advises, "Make sure it's a location you know well, that really helps." Other recommendations include a reconnaissance trip beforehand to meet local experts and arrange logistics, and making sure you have plenty of time to wrap-up after the students leave. In the future, Allen and Barbour hope to develop a course headed to Japan, perhaps as early as next Winterim.
During the upcoming Maymester/Summer term of 2012, CLAS will sponsor about a dozen Study Abroad courses. Students will have the opportunity to study everything from engagement and exploration in China to peace and justice in Guatemala—and from the social issues facing Thailand to human origins and climate change in Tanzania. Anyone interested in learning more about these courses is encouraged to visit the Study Abroad website.