Psychology Major Turns Mother Nature into Her Classroom
Two years ago Nebraska Wesleyan University psychology professor Frank Ferraro took students to Wyoming where they spent a week immersing themselves in the concepts they learned in his class, “Psychological Reactions to Nature.” For a week, the snowy range of Grand Teton National Park served as their classroom.
Without the aid and distraction of technology, Ferraro’s class worked together to transport equipment, purify water, heat food, locate campgrounds and mostly importantly, connect to the natural world.
That particular experience inspired student Brittany Lester to learn more about nature’s effect on connections, and ultimately led her decision to pursue a graduate degree in psychology.
“The field of environmental psychology is largely unexplored, and as our world continues to urbanize at an accelerated rate, further research in this area is crucial to better understand the role urbanization plays in human wellbeing,” said Lester.
Lester’s interest in nature started early and inspired her to start her high school horticulture club. At Nebraska Wesleyan, she pursued a degree and psychology that was highlighted by Ferraro’s class. That experience led Lester and Ferraro to apply for the university’s Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Grant.
“The grant provides opportunities for students and faculty to explore a common area of interest, to be curious together about how the world operates,” said Ferraro.
Lester’s research titled, “The Effect of Nature or Urban Exposure on Connections to Nature and Stress Reactions,” explored the role the environment plays in physiological and psychological stress. In addition to her time at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, she traveled to Yosemite National Park to learn the history of nature-relatedness as described by environmental philosopher John Muir.
“It was amazing to see the environment and experiences he described come true,” Lester recalled.
“Actually being in the same place as some of the authors that I had read about was amazing.”
Her own findings were shared at the Nebraska Psychological Association Conference, and will be shared at Nebraska Wesleyan’s annual student symposium on April 26 — experiences that she said have also improved her public speaking skills.
Lester will receive her psychology degree in May and plans to attend graduate school. Eventually, Lester would like to become a professor.
“I want to ignite curiosity in my students in a way that other professors might not,” she said.
She credits Ferraro for shaping her career goals.
“I would like to provide my students with the same inside and outside experiences that Dr. Ferraro provided for me,” she said.
Those experiences will play an important role in her next journey.
“This experience fueled my academic career and helped to capture my attention to a larger world than my own at NWU,” she said. “This experience not only impacted my academic life, but also my personal identity. I will continue my travels and research in this area for many, many years to come.”
—Story by Emmalie Harris, public relations intern.