Academics, adventure and the Appalachian Trail

Being the Change

by Jan Gillis ('07)

Mat Cloak ('10) checks out the scenic view along the Appalachian Trail.

A JMU Honors Seminar challenges students physically, emotionally and academically

An academic adventure 

"It is extremely rare to be able to teach a class that offers tremendous academic freedom in an adventurous setting — and to be able to combine that freedom and adventure with serious research expectations and academic rigor is exciting," says Kate Kessler, a professor in the JMU School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. Kessler did just that with the Honors Seminar 302: A Taste of the Appalachian Trail. "My course syllabus interwove multiple disciplines — economics, geography, history, sociology and psychology. The course fostered tremendous growth in my students — and in me," she says.

Kessler's students — all part of the JMU Honors Program — were able to experience a combination of seminar and geography when they studied and lived on part of the Appalachian Trail. Kessler explains, "The word 'seminar' refers to academic instruction involving a small group of students engaged in special study and original research under the direction of an experienced teacher. Seminars often employ Socratic dialogue, an instructional method where the teacher functions as facilitator of independent learning rather than as dispenser of homogeneous knowledge. The seemingly unrelated word "geography" refers to the study of our Earth — its lands, features and inhabitants."

In JMU's backyard

The JMU honors seminar, A Taste of the Appalachian Trail, engaged students in experiential and multidisciplinary approaches to learn about the national park right in Harrisonburg's backyard. The students hiked and camped on nearly 70 miles of the Trail around the Shenandoah National Park.

Students conduct independent research

"I challenged each of my honors students to identify an area of interest relating to the Appalachian Trail and to pursue it as independent research," Kessler explains. Steven Irons ('10) video-taped much of the Trail's flora and created an eco-film, which premiered at JMU's Eco-Adventure Film Festival last fall. Sarah Lott studied radiation-sensitive Spiderworts that the Park Service plants as radiation heralds. Alex Haney ('10) studied the history of Big Meadows and Loft Mountain. Meagan Clark ('10) interviewed hikers in an ethnographic study about hiking motivation. Lisa Corey ('10) researched folk music indigenous to the Blue Ridge Appalachians. "The students regrouped last fall and presented their research to the Sierra Club," Kessler says.

A defining and enduring experience

"As a testimony to how much JMU students enjoyed their trail seminar experience, several of them went hiking during this year's Spring Break," says Kessler. "Many have also shared their seminar and other hiking experiences with me."

Clark says, "Our honors seminar created a great balance among freedom of creative exploration, supervised learning and bonding with other students. Dr. Kessler made sure all of us were engaging with the Trail in some way, and usually in a very fun way. We cooked together, put up tents together, huddled in rainstorms together … we truly bonded and learned, together."

Sarah Lott ('10) says, "The biggest impact of this honors seminar was that each of us found a new appreciation and respect for nature and for fellow hikers. Dr. Kessler encouraged us to discover what the Trail meant to us individually. It made such a positive impression on me that I plan to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail after graduation."

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Published: Saturday, September 1, 2012

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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