Finding adventure: Students take experiential learning to the extremes in California national parks

by Matt Overing

BIO 285: Conservation in the National Parks

Studying away during Centre Colleges’ new program based out of Lake Tahoe was filled with unique experiences for the students taking part. They climbed a cinder cone volcano. They slept under the stars. They trekked through snow — in June.

All of the extremes were present during the College’s newest study away course, “Conservation in National Parks,” a summer ecological exploration leading students through northern California’s most majestic sights and introducing them to the history of conservation in America by way of the national parks system. 

“Students were telling me that it was on their bucket list to come to these parks,” said course instructor Claire O’Quin, Biology Lab Coordinator and instructor at Centre. “It was a really new experience for them.” 

That was echoed by students who attended the three-week course, which concluded in June. They started at the Zephyr Point Conference Center, located on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. There, the group of 14 students enjoyed classes on the history of the U.S. national parks; President Theodore Roosevelt’s expansion of the parks system; fire ecology and ecosystems of their planned park destinations; indigenous land management, and more.

“I also wanted them to pay attention to the change from conservation to recreation in the parks,” O’Quin said. “That’s something that has been a long battle ever since national parks were created.”

Rising junior and Bowling Green, Kentucky, native Leah Witcher said as much about the trip. She had been to national parks before — but critical conversations about park access, climate change, sustainability and more weren’t brought up.

“I had been to national parks with my parents, but those aren't ideas that you think of when you're just visiting,” Witcher said.

Students had mixed opinions on their “favorite” part of the course — but for rising senior Hailey Watson, a Spring Creek, Nevada, native, learning from local fire ecologists and firefighters at Yosemite National Park was a highlight.

Students in Dr. Claire O'Quin's BIO 285 class met with firefighers in the Yosemite National Park.
Students in Dr. Claire O'Quin's BIO 285 class met with firefighters in Yosemite National Park.

“The Sierra Nevada mountain range has a natural fire cycle, and it's really interesting to learn how that works. (They) gave us a lot of good information about how they're battling climate change and warming temperatures,” Watson said.

The course was also a test in perseverance, Watson said. She’s a softball player at Centre and an avid hiker but admitted the trek up a cinder cone volcano was the toughest she’s ever done.

It was through those challenges that the group of 14 students grew closer together.

“I love psychology, I love hiking and I love sports. I plan on being a sports and exercise psychologist, so this course helped me a lot,” Watson said. “It was kind of teaching me how to motivate my peers when they needed it and what that looked like — and it looked different for everyone.”

For class of 2026 student Jane Daniel of Sewanee, Georgia, the course was a great precursor to more study abroad opportunities, one of the biggest reasons she chose to be a Colonel.

“I had Dr. O'Quin in the fall as my lab professor. She mentioned the class, and I had never been to a national park,” she said. “I didn't know if I wanted to do a full semester away from campus, and this showed me that not only can I do it, but I had the time of my life.”

O’Quin said the trip was a bonding experience for the students, who represented multiple classes and majors, and she was able to learn more about each student. Daniel, for example, a native of Sewanee, Georgia, had never been that far west.

“This trip reminded me just how special it is to have a small classroom experience with students — really get to know them and have them get to know you as a person as well,” O’Quin said. 

This article is featured as part of the Centre Summer Adventure series, highlighting experiential learning through study abroad and away opportunities across the globe.