Shrouded in clouds on all sides, Maddie LoDico, a freshman in SUNY Potsdam’s Environmental Studies Adirondack Experience, hikes past alpine vegetation on her way to the top of Whiteface Mountain. It’s early September, but you wouldn’t know it by the nip in the air and strong winds whipping past the mountaintop. She is bundled from head to toe with a winter hat, a bright yellow waterproof hood and wool gloves, as she scrambles over a rocky path to the top of the Adirondack summit.
LoDico is one of nine students enrolled in the semester-long Environmental Studies Adirondack Experience, one of 27 First Year Interest Groups (FIGs) offered this semester, giving incoming freshmen a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to learning. “I feel like it really encapsulates what Potsdam has to offer, as not only a town, but a college itself. Because it’s (SUNY Potsdam) sandwiched right in the perfect area and to have this program for the major in environmental studies is absolutely amazing…you get to know what you’re going to be learning for the next four years within one semester,” LoDico said.
Students in the program take classes during the week with Associate Professor of English Donald McNutt, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jessica Rogers and Biology Lecturer William Brown, before embarking on exploratory trips throughout the region on Fridays. One of the highlights of the semester is a trip to the top of Whiteface Mountain in the heart of the Adirondacks.
“Whiteface is unique for a number of reasons. For one, it’s the only trip that we take where students will be able to encounter alpine vegetation. And what we saw coming up the alpine trail, that’s unique ecology or landscape. I think also, it gives students a sense of how singular this place is, because there’s a road coming up the mountain. It’s the only one in the High Peaks. And that gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Look in order for that to happen, a number of political things had to take place, and citizens had to vote and change the State Constitution,’” said McNutt.
The perfectly maintained road winding up the side of Whiteface Mountain provides easy access to the summit. Even people with physical limitations can enjoy the views from the top by taking an elevator (currently out of service) that runs from the parking lot to the summit of Whiteface—the fifth highest mountain in the state at 4,865 feet above sea level. The high mountain road provided the perfect backdrop for discussing varying perspectives on conservation, such as the contention between leading American conservationists Gifford Pinchot and John Muir as it pertains to land use.
“Preserving nature so more people can enjoy it is one side of conservation, but preserving it in its most natural state is the other side of conservation. So, we’re looking at that in the classroom, and now students get to see what it means for that to be implemented,” Rogers said.
The Environmental Studies Adirondack Experience is a great interdisciplinary opportunity for students to work with the same group of classmates in three separate classes—in environmental studies, biology and English. “They get the structure of three classes with the same group of people and then they get to pair what they learn outside and then coordinate what they learn in all three classes. It’s this amazing transition from high school, where everything is dictated to you, to college, where you get some choice and some flexibility, but not an all-out bedlam,” Rogers said.
McNutt, who has been involved with the Environmental Studies Adirondack Experience FIG for the past 11 years, said that the program gives them “direct access to some of the most interesting places in the Adirondacks that are educational and fun and fascinating, and indicative of the rich history here. I think it also gives them a chance to bond with students that they work with…Our discovery is that the students who take this program often become fast friends, and they remember this experience as one of the high points of going to SUNY Potsdam,” McNutt said.
Once on top of the mountain, students spread out on the rock face to reflect on what they’ve learned and write in their journals. McNutt says he encourages his students to write as much as they can about their field trip experiences.
“Classrooms a great place to say, ‘let’s do some impromptu writing,’ and that’s useful. But what students are doing right now, I don’t want them to ever forget it. To say, ‘Hey, I’m sitting on a mountain top for the first time ever, or I’ve been up here before with my family, but now here I’m alone and I’m writing in this class.’…I think that particular places activate something in our minds and our abilities to respond. It’s hard to describe, but I do it myself as often as I can,” McNutt said.
One of the things students can write about is the different ecology discussions led by Brown along the trail. Brown has been teaching students about the evergreen trees found in the Adirondacks. He explained that learning about each type of tree is just the first step before asking bigger questions. “Why is it here? What does it tell us? What’s its story? That’s where it hopefully starts to come together by the end of the semester,” Brown said.
Some students, like Chynna Tomastyk, had never even been to the top of a mountain before. “I like it a lot. It’s very different from my hometown. I’m from Nassau County, Long Island, so we have a lot of beaches,” she said. “It was an experience I would like to do again. And I would like to bring my family up here and try to get them into it…I feel like anyone who’s interested in the environment and anyone who’s interested in helping and trying to save it, should go for this experience,” Tomastyk said.
For more information about the unique FIG opportunities, visit: www.potsdam.edu/studentlife/services/FirstYear/groups