Good weather allows classes outdoors


Bri Aultz, Copy Editor

As the wretched winter comes to an end at Pitt-Johnstown, snow and ice have melted away, and students and faculty have opportunities for outdoor learning.

Assistant professor Marissa Landrigan holds writing classes outside when weather permits. This includes small group work, reading and writing about nature.

She said working outside energizes students, promotes a better class mood and encourages participation.

“Mostly, I choose grassy flat areas, so the whole class can sit in a circle together, and usually a place where there’s both sun and shade–I burn easily, so I want to protect students who might, too,” she said.

Landrigan has a passion for environmental writing.

“Three of my favorite environmental writers are Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass and Annie Dillard.”

She said she plans to work with students on an outdoor media project.

“I’ve got an idea to take creative writing students on nature walks in the campus natural areas, and document their work with creative pieces, photos, artwork, audio, and video, and build a website to house all that work,” she said.

Associate writing professor Eric Schwerer sometimes takes classes outside to the campus circle, a spot where students may comfortably spread out however they choose.

“There, some of us sit upon the cement while, others repose upon the curved, stone wall.  Once settled, we discuss the craft of poetry, short stories and plays,” he said.

The change of scenery does not disrupt Schwerer’s students’ focus.

“Indoors or out, students always grant me their full attention.”

Students also seem to enjoy the change of pace in an outdoor class setting.

Senior Jenn Whistler went outside with professor Schwerer’s class, and enjoyed the environment and experience.

“I always liked going outside to do work. It’s a nice change from the normal classroom environment,” senior Katie Wentworth said.

Following the especially harsh winter, many on campus may have experienced a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression linked to a lack of sunlight.

Health and Wellness Counselor Emily Kist said she believes outdoor activities are especially important after the long, sunless season.

“When we aren’t exposed to much sunlight, it can actually affect a chemical in our brain that controls mood,” Kist said.

According to Kist, the changing seasons have an evident effect on mood, as seen in the Office of Health and Wellness.

“We, as counselors, can definitely see an improvement in a student’s overall mood when the weather changes,” she said.

In addition, education studies have shown the benefits from outdoor learning. Some of these benefits include better concentration and memory, decreased stress and increased motivation.

However, spring and summer semesters aren’t the only time that professors and students get to enjoy the great outdoors. The natural sciences have outdoor lab activities and projects year-round.

In the fall, biology professor Joanna Harrington said she takes her Integrated Science classes outside approximately 3 or 4 times per course.

“I think the change of pace is refreshing for students because they get so used to sitting in class after class all day. I really try to instill innovative ideas into my lessons that students can incorporate into their own classes,” she said.

Some of these lessons include a nature walk lab, a weather lab, focusing on cloud forms and a scientific method lab, in which students design an experiment (and often opt to go outside, though the location is optional).

She said there are a few prime locations chosen when her classes go outside. For example, the nature walk lab usually takes place near the dorms and sports complex.

Harrington’s classroom even extends to the starry skies.

She said students are completing a constellations lab. “They download a star chart app and observe the night sky. It is really fun, and there are so many teachable moments that arise as a result of being outdoors,” she said.

“I think nature’s classroom is limitless. One of my favorite memories from my undergrad was a sunny afternoon that my freshwater ecology professor lectured from the riverbank. It really stuck with me.”

Biology professor Christine Dahlin conducts many lessons outside, including labs for Animal Behavior, Wildlife Management and Vertebrate Biology. She also conducts an Ornithology Lab, which she is to be teaching next fall.

“Pitt-Johnstown has a fantastic natural area that includes fields, forest and trails, so we’re really lucky in our ability to watch birds, find salamanders, assess habitat types, and examine the geology of the area, among other things, right on campus,” she said.

“The outdoor experiences are essential because the learning students engage in outside cannot be acquired in an indoor classroom,” she said.

For Dahlin, the only problem she has is students dressing inadequately for poor weather, regardless of preparing them.

“My message is that if you plan on taking my classes–buy some boots.”

Senior Christy Lambert said she enjoyed going outside for a Geology class.

“We went outside to learn about the different stones the buildings were made out of and about the land UPJ is on. It was neat to connect what we were doing in class to real life examples,” she said.