The classroom of the future has arrived at the University of Arizona.
Students in the Desert Ecology and Conservation Biology class spend around 45 days touring Namibia.
An innovative course offered by the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and UA Study Abroad, allows students to experience the unique landscape of Namibia, Africa, while learning how the arid African lands are strikingly similar to the students' own Sonoran Desert home.
Students in the Desert Ecology and Conservation Biology class live in tents, pitched on the ground and on top of trucks, in remote locations all over Namibia, Africa, which is located just above South Africa and below Angola, with the Atlantic Ocean along its west border and Botswana to its east.
They spend around 45 days touring the country and learning about its diverse ecosystems, including the oceanic coast, dunes of the Namib Desert and ephemeral river systems. Ephemeral rivers in Namibia have above-ground water flowing for 15 to 20 days out of the year.
The unique aspects of Namibian ecosystems provide research material for the students' coursework, which consists of a project, observational study and field journal maintained during the adventure.
Tom Wilson, associate professor of practice in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, has taught this study abroad course every summer since 2009 with colleague Hans-Werner Herrmann, associate research scientist in the School of Plant Sciences.
The arid land of Namibia shares remarkable ecological characteristics with the Sonoran Desert. In fact, Wilson said, the republic "demonstrates convergent evolution on the other side of the world."
According to Wilson, students are "seeing plants and animals that have come up with similar solutions to environmental challenges like heat and lack of water but are totally unrelated to what you would see in Tucson, Arizona." The spiny Namibian plant hoodia, for instance, looks like cactus from the Sonoran Desert but belongs to a separate family.
Undergraduates in last summer's class discovered that Namibians are developing methods to counter environmental problems similar to those in the American Southwest. Water conservation is a huge concern as the country gets potable water from an underground aquifer and two major rivers that are inaccessible due to resident crocodiles, hippos and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Namibians, like Tucsonans, have discovered that underground water is not replaced as rapidly as it is used.
The Namibian government is encouraging water conservation through a variety of measures, such as the promotion of dual-flush toilets, specialized irrigation in agriculture, vegetation adapted to the climate in municipal areas and public awareness campaigns. Also, like Americans, Namibians are capturing the abundant energy of sunlight through solar panels.
Besides providing insight into ways to address some of Tucson's ecological and conservation problems, the course also encourages students to embrace being a global citizen.
"Less than 20 percent of people in the United States own passports," Wilson said. "By the time most Americans travel overseas, everything they do and see is a comparison of something they have already done and seen. Through study abroad classes like the one in Namibia, undergraduates can travel abroad at a much earlier age, and this represents a life changing experience."
Studying abroad develops awareness and appreciation of other cultures, noted Wilson. During the summer of 2013, all seven students experienced the village life of distinct indigenous tribes: the Himba, Damara and San. Students learned the most basic parts of those tribes' life traditions surrounding hunting, livestock as a symbol of wealth, clothing and marriage ceremonies. They also were given access to the tribe members' homes and were able to observe their parenting, the animals on which they rely for survival and more.
The students also experienced the country's rich and diverse wildlife landscape, which includes lions, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, kudu, lilac-breasted rollers, vervet monkeys, chameleons, puff adders and more. The scholars encountered wildlife in ways they never had before.
"To understand that you are powerless to defend yourself against an amazing creature – to understand that your life is out of your hands – is a phenomenal experience," said Kristen Lane, a course participant majoring in business marketing and minoring in environmental science. "You don't know yourself until you're face-to-face with wild animals."
Lauren Nichols, another participant, is majoring in natural resources with an emphasis on conservation biology. She agreed with Lane.
"I was surprised in my own ability to conquer my fears to help make sure others weren't afraid," she said.
Visiting a developing country – a place so different from her own home – has had a lasting effect on Nichols.
"I believe that within travel we find our true self. The self we wish to be, want to be, and the self we will become," she said.
Besides offering a life-changing, perspective-altering experience, field courses increase retention and overall understanding of course material, Wilson said.
"Once you are out in the field, you are no longer studying for the grade, you are studying for the experience," he said. "Information transfer is much more of a two-way path."