Research Summary

Field philosophy: environmental learning and moral development in Isle Royale National Park

Field Philosophy and Environmental Education in Isle Royale National Park

Environmental Education Research

Fostering ethical approaches to decision-making that take the environment into consideration is an important goal of environmental education. Giving moral weight to both human and nonhuman nature, or eco-centric ethics, contrasts with traditional Western ethical systems, which tend to prioritize humans over nonhuman aspects of the environment. Field philosophy, which refers to a way of thinking that combines ecological and ethical learning during an outdoor field-based course, may offer an avenue for teaching eco-centric ethics and fostering personal development.

In this study, researchers explored whether a wilderness experience combined with a community-focused environmental ethics course could help students develop more complex understandings of and empathy for themselves, other humans, and the environment. The course, called Isle Royale Field Philosophy, was conducted annually between 2008 and 2012 in Isle Royale National Park, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Participating students ranged in age from 17 to 27 years old, with the majority between 19 and 22. Most students were majoring in subjects related to the environment, such as fisheries, wildlife, zoology, and human biology. The course consisted of a one-week national-park camping experience, which included individual and group camping activities, such as hiking, cooking, and canoeing, as well as discussions with park rangers and ecologists. Before the course, students read articles focused on the environment and wrote short-response essays. During the trip, students took notes and wrote daily reflections in their journals. Two weeks following the trip, students wrote a three-page reflection paper and submitted a final project on what they learned from the readings and experience.

The researchers analyzed the writing (pre-course, daily reflections, and post-course) of eight students. They used the constant-comparison method to inductively code 22 the data using NVivo software. The researchers read the data multiple times, creating analytical codes and then developing and assigning distinct categories to the data. After analyzing all of the data, four developmental themes emerged: self-awareness and individual development, social learning, curriculum engagement, and empathic awareness and complexity . In terms of self-awareness and individual development, during the course, students became more aware of their own opinions and feelings as well as how they fit into the group dynamic. Social learning referred to learning that occurred within a group: students learned from their peers and reflected on the experience with each other. The curriculum engagement code referred to the process by which many students fully immersed themselves in the wilderness and coursework; they often found that the coursework and reading challenged their ways of thinking and, as a result, reexamined their values. Lastly, the empathic awareness and complexity code referred to students who formed more empathic relationships with the natural world. These students took personal responsibility for how they dealt with the environment, added nature into their moral calculations, and appreciated the complexities of human-environment interactions.

The Bottom Line

Field philosophy, which combines environmental ethical course content with outdoor wilderness experiences, can provide an effective approach to fostering students’ personal growth. Through courses that include challenging wilderness experiences as well as consistent, carefully designed individual and group reflective activities, participants can broaden their understanding of the complexity related to human-natural world interactions; develop a more empathetic moral awareness toward other humans, nonhuman species, and the natural world; and foster a sense of environmental responsibility. Environmental educators might consider applying this framework, or components of it, in their field programs as a way to encourage and support students’ academic, ethical, and emotional growth.