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Courses that Change Your Life: Field Biology in Spring (BIOL 361)

Posted by Dieter Bouma | Nov 19, 2015

Have you ever been in an environment so stimulating and so full of life it seemed impossible to take everything in, or make sense of all that was happening around you? The forests, fields, bogs, beaches, dunes, and lakes of northern Michigan are like that in each returning spring. Dynamic changes are occurring literally beneath your feet in complex chemical reactions in soil and water, the emergence of new plants (many with dazzling flowers), the buzz of insects, the songs of frogs, toads and birds, and the complex movements and behaviors of mammals, all integrated in diverse and complex habitats which are also changing as they experience new dynamics of light, temperature, and moisture. 

Overwhelming as the natural environment in spring might first appear, it can be studied, understood, enjoyed and appreciated in whole and in part through skilled, hands-on instruction. One of Au Sable’s most dynamic and diverse courses, Field Biology in Spring provides students, especially those who aspire to develop the skills of a naturalist, to engage and interpret almost any kind of natural environment and understand its parts and players. A prime goal of the course is to build ecological literacy, to engender understanding that human actions impose a range of intended and unintended environmental consequences that one can study and predict. A common refrain from students in Field Biology in Spring is that this field-taught and experientially-based course is what makes “textbooks come alive.” This happens when over 90% of the course is taught outdoors. Things like trophic levels and food webs, formerly abstract concepts, can be directly seen and studied.

As one student from the 2013 class noted, “Being outside all the time seeing great examples of what we were learning, and seeing different parts of the course come together in real life was incredibly helpful. Otherwise, I may not have fully appreciated the material.”

Students completing Field Biology in Spring gain skills to serve as interpreters, naturalists, and teachers, as well as in scientific inventory and assessment.

The instructor guiding the course is David Dornbos (photo right), Professor of Biology at Calvin College (Michigan). Dornbos’s natural curiosity and fascination with all living things makes him the perfect instructor for a course requiring an enormous range of scientific and observational skills. Dornbos also succeeds in teaching his students that the Bible is telling the truth when it declares, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).

As one student put it, “Dr. Dornbos was the most effective integrator of faith and learning that I have ever studied with, and I go to a Christian university that has integration of [faith and learning] in its mission statement! Our discussions of faith and worldview issues never seemed forced or separate. They were natural parts of our class, discussions woven into our scientific learning. I was challenged to think every day, and really had to apply everything scientific that I was learning into our discussions of faith.”  

Dornbos himself notes, “Knowingly or not, our very lives depend upon having productive ecosystems and our actions determine future productivity.  God claims 'very square inch,' as Abraham Kuyper put it, so we seek to recognize and honor how we treat every ecological detail.”

Field Biology in Spring provides a wonderful, field-intensive introduction to the natural world in its most active time of year, as well as skillful and specific preparation for those who want to teach others, assess natural environments, or provide interpretive understanding to those who are first meeting “nature.” Perhaps more importantly, in the expert hands of David Dornbos, it guides students in their ability to see and appreciate God’s work in creation in physical, visible and tangible ways, and gives life and vitality to Christian faith in the process of challenging students to think about how they can fulfill the dual command of Genesis 2:15 “to serve and protect” God’s creation. Field Biology in Spring is one of Au Sable’s most dynamic and enjoyable classes, and one of its most appealing to students from any area of study.