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Spring break trip focuses on ‘coyote teaching’

By : Lindsay Klemas

While most Binghamton students are at home recuperating from midterms during spring break, a select few will test their survival skills in an ecology class set in the Arizona desert.

Nine students, under the guidance of R. Stimson Wilcox, associate professor of biological sciences, will spend 12 days in the Sonoran Desert learning about desert life and varying evolutionary processes.

In addition to researching various desert life forms such as cacti, insects and birds, the students have prepared for the trip by learning about desert survival tactics.

The class, inspired by Wilcox’s love of nature, was first offered in 1999, after he had scouted out the desert. He employs the ‘coyote style of teaching,’ an ancient teaching style that involves minimal lecturing. Instead, teaching is more informal, with the students teaching each other and working independently.

For example, during the trip, each student learns how to properly build a fire and approaches the task as if the group members’ lives depend on a single match. When students appear frustrated and struggle with the task, Wilcox provides minimal help to get them on track, but allows them to learn from their mistakes. Eventually, students succeed in starting a fire, and can be proud of the accomplishment.

“The whole point of teaching is to get the students to teach themselves,” Wilcox said. “As a result, they grow.”

Whether in the desert or the classroom, Wilcox focuses on more than the academic aspects of college education. He also teaches his students to appreciate nature.

“This class made me more aware of what’s going on around me and in the environment,” said Greg Costanza, one of Wilcox’s former students. “I learned to open my eyes to nature. I see everything so much differently.”

Costanza said that the course allowed him to grow as a person, forcing him to question science and himself.

Kevin Caref, a student in this semester’s class, said he is looking forward to achieving a greater under-standing of desert life and its evolutionary processes.

Moving outside the classroom means carrying more than just a notebook and pencil. Like his classmates, Caref is gathering the required materials for the trip. In addition to keeping a journal of the experience, he will also need a water bottle, leather gloves, sunglasses, sun screen, a whistle, matches, knife, flashlight, fingernail clippers, binoculars, a magnifying lens, tweezers, a first-aid kit and dental floss for his day pack. More equipment, including basic camping and rain gear, will also be necessary.

Costanza encourages students taking the course to bring extra film and to take as many pictures as possible. When they return to Binghamton, he said, the photos can be exchanged and spark discussions of their experiences. Sometimes the class is inspired to go on additional local field trips when they get back, he said.

“It was such a great experience for me to take a class that the professor was very dedicated to,” Costanza said. “His passion for the course inspired me to be so open to the experience and the wilderness.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08