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Wetlands loss and the human impact on the landscape

When biology professor David White, Ph.D., takes his students into the swamp, he likes to go after dark. The wetlands south of New Orleans that he leads his classes through in canoes are full of snakes, spiders, and insects, and he will periodically tell students where to point their flashlights so they can reflect constellations of red alligator eyes.

He is not trying to scare anyone, he said, but to “demystify that nighttime world.” He likes to remind students that the drive down the interstate to the launching point is far more dangerous than slowly skimming in the dark through the reeds. He wants them to feel comfortable in the outdoors, and he uses the experience as a way to break down misconceptions about the natural world they study in biology class.

As they paddle, White discusses topics on ecology while natural manifestations of what he describes abound around them. The trips also provide students the emotional and spiritual sensations involved in being outdoors, which, White said, fewer and fewer of his incoming students have experienced.

The expeditions provide his students common points of reference that enrich classroom discussions. One honors student wrote to White and said she wished the trip had taken place earlier in the semester, because it was such an enriching bonding experience. The subjects his students study—like wetland loss, human impact on the landscape, and the interaction of organisms and their environment—become at once more tangible and complex, and his students come away with a more nuanced understanding and sincere appreciation of the natural world than any classroom lecture could provide them.