Thinking toward a thriving planet: Notes from the field

Students riding horses while they graze in a field on a mountain
Students participating in a new seminar titled "Thinking Toward a Thriving Planet," which was funded by a grant by the Teagle Foundation.

by Robin Walter & David McIvor

The moose bellows at 4 a.m. as the three-quarter moon casts its reflected light on a herd of five horses and three mules — part of CSU’s Packing & Outfitting Program in Equine Science. Collectively, the animals watch over 12 students who are camping outside the National Forest near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. The students (and the other animals) are participants in an educational experiment — a seminar entitled “Thinking Toward a Thriving Planet.”

Part of the new Green and Gold Initiative offered at Colorado State University, the students are here courtesy of a grant-funded initiative made possible by the Teagle Foundation. The university-wide effort, spearheaded by Professor of English and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar Dan Beachy-Quick, focuses on the transformative nature of humanity’s most enduring questions. The “Gold” courses are concerned with questions of human flourishing (such as truth, beauty and justice) and the “Green” courses focus on the environment and sustainability.

The “Green” seminars taught by Robin Walter and David McIvor, faculty in the equine science and political science departments, respectively, culminated in an overnight backcountry field trip to the neighboring Red Feather Lakes wilderness. Students in the seminar class worked alongside students in Equine Science’s Packing & Outfitting course to create a multidisciplinary and hands-on learning experience. Students pitched tents against the backdrop of granite cliffs alongside a snow-covered meadow of grazing horses. Throughout the first day, students engaged in outdoor seminars and discussion, and on the second day they rolled up their sleeves and did trail restoration work in the National Forest in partnership with Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.

Adam Carlson, first-year student from Colorado Springs and a student in Walter’s class, was one of the students who jumped into the experience.

“You don’t think about trails, how you use them, and how you share the natural world with people until you work on them,” he said.

Student tenderly petting a donkey on the head
The educational experiment included a herd of five horses and three mules.

“You don’t think about trails, how you use them, and how you share the natural world with people until you work on them.”

— Adam Carlson (’26)

The foundational vision of the Teagle grant invites interdisciplinary connections and conversations around perennial questions surrounding the human condition and emergent complexities of life on an increasingly interconnected and vulnerable planet. By approaching such considerations through an interdisciplinary lens, students were invited to explore questions of belonging, community, sustainability, ecology, imagination, purpose and meaning. The multi-disciplinary approach included perspectives from equine science, political science, literature, art and philosophy.

“This is a really unique chance to rethink the purpose of higher education in the context of ecological and social crises,” McIvor said. “Our students are hungry to see how their academic studies can connect to their lived experience and to their sense of responsibility to the health and wellbeing of the planet as a whole.”

The seminar course included an overnight backcountry field trip and trail restoration work in a national forest.

Students with hardhats walking on a trail single-file
From trail-building to discussions about horse behavior and reciprocity, students engaged in experiential learning.

“On the trip we had the opportunity to work with two other classes and to get to know students outside our major, which was such a great experience,” said equine science senior Hannah Anderson. “It was meaningful to find commonalities among us that we used to bond and create a shared experience together. I am glad that I got to share my passion with others and to have helped create a memorable experience introducing the other classes to the horses. I think it is important to reach across different disciplines because everyone has something different to bring to the table which always makes for such a unique experience.”

From trail-building to discussions about horse behavior and reciprocity, students engaged in experiential learning as they aligned insight with action. Students applied the knowledge cultivated over the course of the semester and shared the cares and concerns of their respective areas of study with one another in a truly collaborative and community-oriented experience.

“These classes are designed to help you ask questions and reflect on how you interact with the world and with your own thoughts,” Carlson said. “They’ve been eye opening.”

CTV coverage on IU 180 environmental seminars. Video courtesy of Rocky Mountain Student Media’s Collegian TV

“The field trip served as a powerful reminder that learning need not be insular nor should it occur solely within the confines of the academic institution,” Walter said. “By inviting conversations across departments and disciplines, and by fostering connections between students and the animal and human communities beyond the University, students are better equipped to consider complex and interconnected questions. When we anchor our inquiry in an ethos of curiosity, we might learn to bolster the relations between community, climate and care.”