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Cornell Wilderness Term - 2011

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Panorama of Low Lake from the Wilderness Field Station (credit: David Kesler)
Banner photo: Hegman Pictographs (credit: Heather Axen)

The Cornell Wilderness Term (CWT) is an off-campus program comprising courses in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Courses are taught during the first term of the academic year at the Wilderness Field Station on Low Lake in the Superior National Forest. The Field Station is within walking distance of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, described by National Geographic as "paradise found" and one of the "50 greatest places of a lifetime."

CWT provides students with unique opportunities for field, laboratory and other creative work, and for reading, writing and reflecting in a wilderness setting. Co-curricular activities--such as camping, canoeing and evening seminars--enable cross-disciplinary sharing of ideas. CWT courses are advertised each year in the Course Schedule and on this web site. Participation in the program entails additional costs that are not covered by regular tuition or financial aid, and include transportation, room and board, and use of Wilderness Field Station facilities. Click on details for further information about expenses, weather, and what to bring.

Courses Offered in September 2011

Andy McCollum

BIO 321


Prof. Andy McCollum

It is considered rare for a person to become an ecologist without early experiences in the outdoors (see The Wilderness Field Station web site’s faculty autobiographies or those of most any ecologist).  But it is never too late for a person to become fascinated with the workings of living ecosystems.  You just need a good place to explore. The environs of the Wilderness Field Station provide about as beautiful and intact an ecosystem as can be found in the lower 48 states.  Come learn how it works!

Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environment and how these interactions influence species’ distributions and abundances.  In this class we will address some of the fundamental questions in ecology, including:
How do history and geography result in today’s Boundary Waters ecosystem?
How do matter and energy both support and move through food webs?
How do populations change in abundance over time?
How do populations interact via competition, predation, or mutualism?
How do communities respond to disturbances such as fires and logging?
How do organisms adapt to challenges posed by their environment?
How can we apply ecological understanding to conservation of biodiversity?


We will address these topics as much as possible via observation and experimentation in a diversity of Northwoods habitats, including forests, bogs, lakes, streams, and beaver ponds, but will also spend some time reading and in classroom discussion. Class explorations can be adjusted according to student interests, but may include some or all of the following:
Food webs within a beaver pond.
Patterns of co-occurrence of species dwelling in pitcher plants.
Changes in forest structure during succession from recent burns to old growth.
Patterns of distribution and abundance of exotic species of plants or animals.
Variation in characteristics of lakes along an elevation gradient.
Interactions between predators and prey or between plants and their pollinators.

After an introduction to the Northwoods ecosystem and some of its inhabitants, we will take a canoe trip through the BWCA wilderness, during which we will engage in a study of beavers as ecosystem engineers.  This project excites me because it will enable us to study plants and animals in aquatic and terrestrial habitats and the interactions among all of these.

In addition to your academic work, your grade will be based on your participation in the classroom, the field, and especially as a part of the team effort required to make our canoe trip an enjoyable and educational experience. While this is a college class and ecology is a “rigorous scientific discipline”, I plan to both have fun and obtain solace from immersion in a stunning and majestic wilderness.  I expect you will too! (Laboratory Science)

Prerequisites: BIO 141 and 142, liability waiver and permission of the instructor.

ENV 202

Introduction to Environmental Chemistry

Prof. Brian Nowak-Thomson

Brian Nowak-Thompson

Low Lake, Sepember 2007

Environmental Chemistry (ENV202) offers you a different way to see the world! This class studies the chemical properties of water, the pollutants it carries, and the policies in place to help manage this precious resource. We will be exploring the chemistry of lakes, bogs, and wetlands both around the field station and during an extended canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (~5 days). Additional visits to the more civilized town of Ely will help us to understand the challenge of effectively managing water resources. We will also examine the potential impacts of sulfide mining operations that are being developed in the region and how volunteer citizen groups are working to protect the lakes and streams that are being threatened. Join us and discover how chemistry and canoes react! (Laboratory Science)

Prerequisites: ENV 101 or any science credit, liability waiver and permission of the instructor.

ENG 350

American Nature Writing

Prof. Glenn Freeman

When Europeans first arrived on the shores of North America, the continent was seen as a “New Eden,” a vast, bountiful wilderness of endless riches. Even as the wilderness has been tamed (or erased?), images of wilderness have remained a defining element of the American ethos, serving as a spiritual, religious, and aesthetic metaphor for the American character. At the same time, America has had a long, troubled relationship with its wilderness as environmental concerns clash inevitably with economic/political concerns. In the terms of a predominant Judeo-Christian heritage, what does it mean to have “dominion” over the wilderness and its inhabitants? This course will trace a literary tradition that engages with nature and wilderness. We will explore the ways in which wilderness has existed at the core of an American mythology. We will explore spiritual, political, and aesthetic relationships with the wild. We will read influential writers such as Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, and Terry Tempest Williams and explore works by people indigenous to the area, the Anishinaabe. 

Morning Moose in Lake Insula Camp, 2006

American Nature Writing, 2005

We will be fortunate to engage in this study in the midst of one of America’s most important wilderness areas, The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. As we study an historical tradition, then, we will be offered a unique opportunity to examine and write about our own relationship with nature, wildness, and wilderness. We will learn about canoeing, portaging, and surviving in the wilderness, and the class will spend several days canoeing into the heart of the BWCWA which will allow us to encounter nature in a way that the contemporary world with its electronic “conveniences” all too frequently neglects. We will read, we will write, we will listen, we will swim and play, and we will experience our selves and our world in a new and challenging way. Whether you are an avid outdoorsperson or a neophyte, this course will offer you room to challenge yourself and to grow. Be prepared to return to your day-to-day lives with a new set of eyes. (Humanities)

Prerequisites: Any writing-designated (W) course, liability waiver and permission of the instructor.


The Cornell
Wilderness Term

The Boundary Waters
Canoe Area Wilderness


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