Santa Clara University

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Teaching Scholars

Ten days. Sixteen students. One island. And two professors. When Elizabeth Dahlhoff, associate professor of biology, and environmental studies Lecturer John Farnsworth co-taught the Spring Break Immersion Program in Baja California, Mexico last year, they expected it to be a life-changing experience for the students. They didn’t know that it would be as transformational an experience for them.
“You start becoming part of conversations that you wouldn’t have in a classroom,” says Dahlhoff. “You really come to know these students. And they really come to know you.” The 10-unit program is two courses: one in advanced nature writing and the other in desert and marine ecology. The classes meet in the winter quarter and students spend spring break writing about and investigating, by kayak, snorkel, and on foot, habitats in southern Baja.

“Baja gets under your skin, just like sand … and in your hair, just like the salt,” says Dahlhoff. “There’s something about it that’s so stark, so beautiful, and so precious that you just don’t get over it.” The group spent two days camping and hiking in the Sierra de Laguna, followed by seven days of kayaking around a desert island. Dahlhoff explained plant and animal adaptation to the desert and marine environment, while Farnsworth challenged students to write about their observations.

One with nature

One with Nature
“The pelicans, the doves, the hermit crabs that creep into your tent …the sergeant majors, cordons, ringtailed cats, and chuckwallas basking in the sun …”—these are some of the most vivid images that remain with Abigail Pira ’10. “In Baja, there is no stress,” she says. “There are no bills to pay or phone calls to make, no tests to study for or errands to run. It’s just living life in the moment.” As a psychology major and biology and Spanish double minor, Pira took this class to fulfill some core units as well as practice her Spanish skills. “What I learned from it was far more,” she says. “For seven long and laborious days, we kayaked a jawdropping 44 miles; we hauled our tents and sleeping bags; we carried utensils, washing basins, fresh food, and cans ... we cooked, we talked, we laughed. We made connections for a lifetime.”

It's so intense. It becomes, in the truest sense of the word, experiential learning.

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The group paddles for seven days in the La Paz Bay in Baja California, Mexico, stopping only to snorkel with sea lions and camp at night. "Students are exposed to things they haven't seen before in their lives," says Dahlhoff. "It's a transformative experience."

On one particular two-hour adventure to some tide pools, “they learned more about invertebrate zoology than they had in the previous 12 years of their lives,” says Dahlhoff. “We prepare them for Baja for 10 weeks—we show them pictures of organisms, we have them do writing exercises, we prepare field guides, but when they get there, it’s so intense. It becomes, in the truest sense of the word, experiential learning.”

Dahlhoff’s research program also takes her undergraduate research students to the high Sierra Nevada in Eastern California for four to eight weeks each summer. “We’re investigating how high elevation populations of willow beetles are evolving in response to rapid climate change,” she explains. “Not only do students get to develop their own research projects, but they camp, have breakfast with scientists from all over the world, and get exposure to some of the last true wilderness.” 

And they help Dahlhoff as a scholar. “They ask insightful questions, find papers that I haven’t seen, and expand my bandwidth,” she says. “They take my research program from being an individual enterprise to a team effort.”