Wilderness Class Impacts Students Academically ... and Psychologically?

NWU faculty lead new students to the Boundary Waters each fall as an introduction to a class on wilderness.
Psychology professor Frank Ferraro leads a class in the wilderness. Ferraro is studying the psychological impact on students.
Students spend six days in the rugged wilderness.
Students are required to read "Singing Wilderness" as part of the experience.
Professor Frank Ferraro is researching the impact this experience has on creativity.
The next Boundary Waters trip will take place in August 2013.
The experience has connected students for their entire collegiate career.

For the past five years, dozens of new Nebraska Wesleyan students have begun their collegiate careers by climbing in a university van and driving 700 miles to northeastern Minnesota.

There they spend six days in the rugged wilderness canoeing and portaging several miles per day, carrying at least 50 pounds of equipment. No showers, no cell phones, no nearby emergency services or convenience stores.


“This is a rich example of experiential learning,” said NWU biology professor Dale Benham. “Students probably don’t realize it at the time what a luxury it is to have this opportunity.”

Benham was joined at the Boundary Waters by fellow biology professor Jerry Bricker, history professor Sandra Mathews, and psychology professor Frank Ferraro. Together they led nine new students through the wilderness.

The class is a Liberal Arts Seminar for first-year students called “The Necessity of Wilderness.” The trip is held two weeks prior to the start of the academic year. Students use the experience as a case study for their semester-long exploration of the recreational, ecological, historical, and cultural elements of the wilderness.

Along with the physical requirements, students spend their days in outdoor workshops led by the faculty. They also conclude their days journaling about their experiences and sharing aloud with their peers in what the faculty have come to refer to as the day’s “roses and thorns” reflections.

“On day one they’re usually writing about how they don’t think they can do it,” Benham said. “On day two they’re writing horror stories about it. By day four they are writing about the grand experience they’re having. It’s life-changing.”

The topic and trip seemed like a natural fit for two biology professors to lead. But it didn’t take long for Benham to realize the experience encompasses more. He invited Mathews along to teach about the Ojibwa culture. Ferraro joined the group in hopes the experience would impact the way he teaches his psychology courses.

Following the 2011 trip, Ferraro began to wonder what — if any — psychological impact might be happening to the new students on the trip. He was interested in recent studies correlating time spent in the outdoors and a greater capacity for creativity and imagination.

Ferraro decided to study how students on the most recent trip fared. Prior to boarding the van in August, students were given a test with 10 problems consisting of three clue words. For each problem, students were asked to think of a fourth word that relates to the other three. For example, students were given the words “envy,” “golf,” and “beans.” The correct answer was the word “green.”

On average students scored a 3.5 out of 10 on the first test. The test — with different word problems — was given midway through the trip. This time on average students scored a five. At the conclusion of the trip, students took the test — with different word problems yet again — and averaged a seven.

The simple pencil and paper research correlated with other national psychological research indicating those who completely immerse themselves in the outdoors experience a 40 percent increase in cognitive skills.

Now Ferraro wants to know why. What areas of the brain might produce a creativity boost? Could the cognitive improvements be related to a decrease in stress hormones? Does a true immersion in nature allow time for the mind to rest?

“It has convinced me that something psychologically is going on,” said Ferraro.

More research needs to be done, Ferraro said, and he plans to expand it for next year’s Boundary Waters trip.

Even though the professors are teaching and working on the trip, they all admit they too experience psychological benefits from the Boundary Waters.

“I don’t have time to sit and think and reflect when I’m in my office,” said Bricker, who also leads biology students on study abroad trips to Belize and Honduras. “It’s an opportunity to recharge your batteries. I often wonder, why doesn’t everyone do this as a teacher?”

“It has by far changed how I teach,” Ferraro said. “It has made me better.”

Not surprisingly students say they experience the same benefits.

“We all got to experience the amazing feeling of getting away from civilization and technology, and how much it makes a difference in one’s life,” said first-year student Annie Nyffeler.

“It really instills an appreciation for nature that few get to experience,” said Mathews. “It’s truly an interdisciplinary experience and it changes them, regardless of what they end up doing with their lives.”