News & Resources

Courses That Change Your Life: Alpine Ecology (BIOL 478)

Posted by Paul Wiemerslage | Mar 10, 2015

By definition (in biology) alpine ecosystems are treeless areas found at high elevations (above “tree line”) characterized by short growing seasons, shallow soils, harsh environments and unique life forms adapted to their conditions. You can’t study the ecology of an alpine system just anywhere, but you can study them in Alpine Ecology, one of Au Sable’s most fascinating courses offered at Pacific Rim.

A field intensive course with study sites centered in the beautiful Olympic Mountains of northwest Washington, Alpine Ecology provides students, especially those considering graduate studies, with the chance to see and learn what it’s like to study a unique biological community in detail and at an advanced level. To learn the ways of an alpine system, one’s study has to be as specialized as the adaptations of the alpine species being studied, whose unique growth forms, physiology, migratory patterns and resource use strategies permit them to live in what, for non-alpine species, would be an inhospitable environment.

Different as they are, alpine systems possess a transcendent beauty that inspires everyone and anyone who has ever seen them. Their vivid colors, magnificent vistas, abundant surface water and often startling, gigantic geological features are like no other, and truly display the glory of God. Au Sable has the perfect person to teach such a course in Eric Steinkamp, Professor of Life Science at Northwestern University (Washington). Eric not only holds a Master’s degree in Forest Management and a PhD in Forest Science, but also a Master of Divinity. In Alpine Ecology, Eric not only teaches students advanced concepts in the analysis and interpretation of elevational zonation in biological communities, or the theories of latitudinal biogeography, he also presents careful biblical and theological study to understand more deeply how God displays His traits in His work, the nature of its inherent value, and the human responsibility to care for and protect it, even, and especially, when a system is as fragile as an alpine environment. As one student said, “I think that the emphasis on field trips was an element of the course that really helped me because it really allowed us to see firsthand the concepts we were learning in their ecological context. It helped me to learn better than always sitting through lectures. A helpful practice of the instructor was encouraging us to observe and think things through ourselves rather than always handing us the answers, such as when we identified plants.”

For students ready to attempt a study of specialization, Alpine Ecology offers the opportunity. The things you learn, and the method in which you learn them, can change your perception of not only your goals in science, but yourself as a scientist.