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SCU Baja program reinvigorates Natural History pedagogy

Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012


In the era of molecular biology, some might think of collegiate courses in natural history as being a bit “old school,” a return to Victorian times when naturalists such as Charles Darwin ruled the roost.  Nothing could be further from the truth according to SCU scholars John Farnsworth and Christopher Beatty, who just published a paper in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience.

Beatty and Farnsworth have both been associated with SCU Studies Abroad in Baja, the former teaching ENVS 144, Baja Natural History, and the latter teaching ENVS 142, Writing Natural History.  They see a key linkage between their courses as the development of powers of observation, especially in the process where observations lead to identification which in turn leads to description.  They write, “Adeptness in description links directly to the ability to observe, and we find this prerequisite lacking among some of our students when they enter the program.” 

The Baja program, now in its sixth year under Farnsworth’s direction, has emerged as a national model of how writing pedagogy can combine with experiential education in natural history to create a program that engages students uniquely. The program has become so popular in recent years that it is now limited to juniors and seniors majoring in environmental science, biology, or environmental studies. The program website can be found here 

According to Farnsworth and Beatty, the key to the program’s success has been in how it utilizes a journaling process to organize field notes. During the field portion of the class, students are required to keep more than mere species lists, making observations about behaviors and the habitats in which they discover organisms.  The students are assigned writing prompts for each class, and are instructed to spend at least two hours each day working on their field notes.

The paper, titled: “The Journal’s the Thing: Teaching Natural History and Nature Writing in Baja California Sur” is available via the Natural History Network website.