Autumn is such a special time of year, and the first weeks of the season always remind me of my years as a professor of forest soils at the University of Montana. Much like in our courses here at SEFS, our students there spent part of every week out in the field experiencing soils firsthand—getting their hands dirty, quite literally, with scientific discovery. We also embraced the lessons of my predecessor in Missoula, Professor Tom Nimlos, who insisted that “you can’t know anything about soils if you don’t know your plants.” So my classes made weekly forays into the prairie, woodland and subalpine ecosystems around us, simultaneously learning soils, plant species and how plant communities reflect the soils below. We explored how soil moisture and chemistry determine what can and cannot grow in a given climatic zone, and how plant communities in turn help shape the morphological characteristics of the soil below. The class was difficult, yet our students loved being outside every week—even in rain and snow—learning soils in a holistic and applied framework.
Field excursions are crucial to the understanding of all the natural resource sciences, and we have an especially long and varied tradition at SEFS of leading student research throughout the Cascades, Olympics and beyond. Whether studying soils, wildlife, forest management, ecology, recreation or hydrology, lectures and labs can only take you so far; at some point you need to see, touch and interact with natural and managed landscapes in order to grasp exactly how they function. In many ways, these trips—and the applied nature of our degree programs—are what separate us from other programs, and what make our curriculum so effective at delivering a comprehensive education in natural resource and environmental sciences.
That’s why I’m so excited to introduce a new upgrade to our field programs this fall: We’re leasing a 30-passenger bus, the Starcraft XL 32, to shuttle our students in larger groups. That might not sound revolutionary at first, but we’ve grappled for a long time with the challenge, especially for larger classes, of how to transport students safely and efficiently to distant sites. We’ve often had to reserve several Suburbans and travel in caravans, requiring multiple drivers and limiting the potential for using drive time productively as a class.
During the last year, though, we worked closely with UW Fleet Services to arrange the lease for this bus, which we’ve dubbed the “Starcraft Enterprise.” We had it outfitted with a few special features for us, including a PA system for on-the-road lectures, its own wireless network, USB and charging ports, a 36-inch overhead monitor for presentations, and even our school logo on the side to advertise our research trips. The bus is designed for muddy boots and wet gear, as well—easy to clean out after a soggy day of stream surveys, or trudging through Pack Forest after the first snow of the season (hopefully coming earlier than last year!). I think it’s going to be a major improvement, and our faculty have already booked the bus for just about the whole year.
Not every field trip will require the bus, of course, and it won’t be able to access some of the rougher roads across the state. But maintaining our field courses is fundamental to the success of our programs, and the Starcraft Enterprise gives us a real boost to keep costs sustainable—and also to keep our students moving safely. I can’t wait to hear the first reports from the field!
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences