Dr. Ashton Nichols, English

Thoreau, Wilderness, and American Writing

Ashton Nichols used Valley & Ridge to begin several new courses and revise a course from the past. Although an early participant, his experiences with field-based learning and sense of place have continued to affect his pedagogical design and planning. Two examples are the Natural History Mosaic and his Writing About the Natural World courses.

The Natural History Mosaic emerged as an idea when three professors--Marcus Key, Earth Sciences; Ashton Nichols, Environmental Studies and English; and Gene Wingert, Biology--decided to use the Mosaic format to introduce students to paleontology, nature writing, and field biology, respectively. The result was field trips to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, the Carnegie Mellon Natural History Museum, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation trip to the Chesapeake Bay, the Elk County Visitor Center residency, the State Museum in Harrisburg and more. In addition, students engaged in field experiences that included saw-whet owl banding, turtle trapping, hawk watching, fossil hunting, Susquehanna River cleaning, a Joseph Priestley House tour, the Pittsburgh National Aviary, and more. This Mosaic was a remarkable example of what can happen when three professors, with different strengths and different interests, come together to share their expertise and enthusiasm with students, but also to use place-based learning as a way of engaging students while conveying content.

In a similar way, Writing About the Natural World has improved with the addition of an outdoor exercise as its first writing assignment and a day-trip to Dickinson’s Organic Farm as a way of immersing students in sense of place as a key to effective prose. Better writing always emerges when the writer cares about the locale of the subject, and Nichols’s work with the natural world and sustainability have both benefitted from teaching tools provided by Valley and Ridge.