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Knox Students Spend Term Living and Learning Outdoors

Kate Mishkin
Emma Downing, who's in her "place" about 5 minutes from the house

For an entire 10-week term, some Knox College students willingly give up wifi, dorms, and life at school. Their classes aren’t in buildings... they’re outside.

For a term, students take biology, geology and art at Knox College's Green Oaks biological field station.

Instead of reading out of a biology textbook, they take nature walks to identify ferns. Instead of sitting in an art studio, each student is given a “place” on the 700-acre property to produce some sort of art form.

For her art project, Knox junior Emma Downing, a biology major, is playing with mud. She said art is a little out of her comfort zone. “Funny enough, art is probably the hardest class for me because of what I don’t know it,” Downing said.

Her art "place" is about five minutes from the house where the students live. It’s between the woods and the prairie, and it’s surrounded by trees that Downing's covered in yarn.

That’s the concept during the Green Oaks Term where a dozen students are taken out of their comfort zone to live in the college’s biological field station. The class is only
offered once every two years.

On days when students aren’t in class, they take field trips, or do stewardship,
which involves building and yard work. Sometimes, the group will cut down
invasive species or build part of a bridge using power tools – something neither
Emma Downing nor fellow junior Morgan Madderom had done before.

“We’re learning,” Madderom said.

Madderom’s place is off Locust Trail. She’s building what she calls a monument to the past, based on the history of Green Oaks.

The field station is only about 45 minutes from the college campus, but students feel they’re mostly cut off from the world. Sometimes they’re brought back to campus for speakers or banquets, but usually, they’re sequestered in the woods.

Many students at Green Oaks have backgrounds in environmental science and
biology, but there are also anthropology-sociology and creative writing majors.

Downing’s major is in environmental studies and creative writing. She said her place
has a narrative that ties in her background in creative writing.

Credit Kate Mishkin

Professor Jim Mountjoy teaches biology at Green Oaks. He takes students around the property to identify trees, ferns and birds. He’ll be the first to admit that he’s never seen the entire property.

Even though it’s a diverse group, there’s a type of student who often does Green Oaks term.

“The sort of personality that enjoys this sort of experience doing something
different outdoors, being open to that sort of thing. It’s as much a personality
characteristic that typifies the group as much as academics,” Mountjoy said.

Classes are only one part of the equation.

The students are also required to cook and clean for themselves. And Madderom said living in such a tight-knit community is sometimes a challenge.

“I realized people process things in different ways and deal with things in different
ways and that’s not always compatible with how you deal with things,” Madderom said.

Both Emma Downing and Morgan Madderom said they often have to think about how their actions affect the people they live with. Sometimes, it’s difficult. The students also aren’t always able to keep in touch with families or friends.

“No one really knows what’s going on out here, which is kind of hard,” Downing said.

Still, they said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. It’s nice to get away from
the rhythm of college and to just lay in the prairie or read a book by the campfire.

The students spend a lot of time drawing and talking to one another. “There are some days I just wish I could just be at the Beanhive [coffee shop] or just be away,” Downing said. “But, other days I wake up and there’s prairie over here and forest over here and a lake, and I don’t think I’m ever going to get this at any other point in my life.”

That’s why Downing likes her place — it gives somewhere to go and think, or create
something. Even when it’s raining, she’ll take rain walks out to her swampy place.