Millikin University's biology department offers students the opportunity each academic year to experience ecological journeys: travel courses designed to familiarize students with principles of ecology in exotic or unusual environments. Students have the opportunity to work together to carry out field investigations during their travels. Recently, four Millikin undergrads traveled to Alaska with Dr. Judy Parrish, Millikin professor of biology, to study the state's ecological aspects and to experience its high points.
"We have different ecological journeys throughout the academic year and we concentrate on ecological principles, interactions between organisms, and we spend quite a bit of time on vegetation as well as studying different animals," said Parrish. "We also try to work in 17 to 18 hours of lecture, so it's certainly an educational experience."
The four students that accompanied Dr. Parrish on the Alaskan trip were Dexter Bunch, a senior biology major from Cerro Gordo, Ill., Brett Ketza, a senior biology secondary teaching major from Sugar Grove, Ill., Dylan Ross, a senior biology major from Urbana, Ill., and Alyson Kramer, a junior communications major from Woodridge, Ill.
The group spent close to three weeks in late July hiking and camping in Alaska. The group also hiked on glaciers and up mountains and watched animals such as bears, moose, and eagles. The students worked on specific projects such as comparing plankton near the beach to plankton out in Resurrection Bay, comparing photosynthetic rates of leaves at different positions on fireweed plants, and comparing anthocyanin contents in young and older leaves.
"This trip was a really interesting way to learn about the ecology of a place unfamiliar to what we are normally used to," said Ross. "The field exams were a great way to reinforce what Dr. Parrish wanted us to know. My project was on the anthocyanin content in fireweed, a plant that is common throughout Alaska. I collected data to see what area of the plant produced the highest anthocyanin content based solely from the leaves. Being able to see the organisms up close really helped me understand their adaptations."
Along with their studies, the group also explored Hatcher Pass, a Muskox farm, and the Iditarod Headquarters in the Matanuska Valley. They also visited the Native Heritage Center in Anchorage and the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, and spent five days in Denali National Park.
Alyson Kramer added, "This trip was an eye-opener to what our own country can provide for us. The days were filled with hiking, animal watching and different culture experiences. We were lucky enough to see many native animals and plants in full swing while we were there. Our group was small which also made the trip a more personal experience because we helped each other out with coursework."
When asked about his experience, Brett Ketza added "One of the greatest experiences of my life was being able to walk across a glacier during the trip, and we also got a really great perspective of Alaska during our guided tours. The project I worked on was a comparison of different types and amounts of plankton we got from the open ocean compared to the coast. We compared similarities and differences, and we also tried to determine why those similarities and differences exist."
Ketza added, "One of the things I really enjoyed about the trip was the hands-on field experiences – we interacted with everything there and learned about everything while it was there in your hands. I want to become a biology teacher and this experience is the same approach I would like to take with a class in the future. This is the type of trip that shows students what they can do by being out there in the field."
Throughout the experience in Alaska, the Millikin students had to reflect on the impact of the trip in a journal. The students shared their observations in their journals every day, and also wrote three intriguing questions and shared their top three learning experiences.
"I thought it was interesting to reflect on the trip," said Ketza. "The more I realized that not only was the trip educating us on biology, ecology, and the Alaskan culture, I realized it showed us how little we needed to get by each day. It was very eye-opening."
Dr. Parrish added, "I think the students' first-hand observations as well as their manipulation of things during the trip were important. Before we left for the trip the students were supposed to put together a list of goals, so it's always interesting to see if their goals were met by the end of the trip."