A Superior Education

Superior Studies program offers unique opportunities for students and faculty

The gravel road just off County Road 6 that serves as an entry to Wolf Ridge seems to twist without purpose through acres of quaking aspen. The randomness of the road forces drivers to slow and let the quiet crunch of gravel echo off the black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers that swell in summer heat along the ditch.

The serenity of this two and one-half mile commute is only one reason why 30 Minnesota college students and professors like Dr. Steve Hoffman decide to give up part of their summer to learn and teach in the Superior Studies program near the North Shore.

Superior Studies began in 1997 when St. Olaf professor Dr. Gary Deason sought an opportunity to provide more environmental learning classes for his students at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near Ely, Minn. It turned out that he was not the only one interested in offering additional environmental programming. In 1999, based on interest from other schools, Deason decided to expand the Superior Studies program to all interested Minnesota private colleges.

As chair of the Environmental Studies program at St. Thomas, Hoffman was quick to make Superior Studies available to St. Thomas students and faculty. In the first summer of the consortium, 41 students enrolled from seven colleges (St. Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Concordia-Moorhead, St. Olaf, St. John’s and St. Benedict). The reach of the program continues to expand, and more than 125 students have attended Superior Studies since its inception.

The program draws area faculty as well. By the end of the second summer session in 1999, 21 professors had brought their textbooks — and canoe paddles — from their campuses to the gray brick classroom buildings at Wolf Ridge. Here, in the woods, they teach the subjects they are passionate about: everything from sustainability to spirituality, kayaking to conservation. And many like Hoffman, who co-taught Environmental Policy and Regulation last summer, are back for their second summer of teaching.

Have You Hugged a Tree Today?

Brooke Penaluna, a spring ’00 environmental studies graduate from St. Thomas, spent last summer as a student in Superior Studies. "I wanted to come up here, to northern Minnesota, because I’d done study-abroad programs on ecology in Costa Rica and parts of the Caribbean, and I thought it was important to understand social and environmental issues not only in a world view, but from home as well."

The desire to learn about social and environmental issues that impact state and local communities is common among Superior Studies students. However, given the location of the program, students often have to dispel the myth that they are bunking in tents and eating meals culled from the Euell Gibbons Cookbook.

In truth, the accommodations at Wolf Ridge are very modern. Most of the facilities have been built in the last 10 years, including a large dorm and a newly completed science building where classes are held. With the notable exception that CK1 has been replaced by Deep Woods Off as the scent of choice and most backpacks look like they actually have been taken on a camping trip, the students are very much the same as you would find on any college campus.

"Some people might call us tree huggers," said Joel Howard, a Superior Studies classmate of Penaluna’s and senior at Concordia-Moorhead this fall. "But I feel that we’re all better prepared to make informed decisions about the environment based on what we’ve learned here."

Nearly everyone involved with Superior Studies is quick to point out that this is not just a program for environmental studies majors. "It has never been my intent to have the program serve an exclusive audience," said Deason, who recently left St. Olaf to become president and executive director at Wolf Ridge (he will continue his involvement with Superior Studies).

The varied and interdisciplinary courses offered by Superior Studies are tailored to welcome all students, regardless of their areas of study. Program facilitators work closely with the registrars at participating institutions to ensure that the credits awarded for classes in the program can be applied toward general requirements. At St. Thomas these courses can now be found in the registration catalog, allowing students to enroll in the program just as they do for all other classes.

St. Thomas journalism professor Dr. Mark Neuzil, who co-taught Environmental Policy and Regulation with Hoffman, finds that, like Penaluna, most students view the program as a study-abroad opportunity in the wilderness. "Superior Studies students are hardworking, and most really enjoy wildlife and nature," said Neuzil, a lifelong fishing and camping enthusiast. "What better place is there to learn environmental skills and academics than the North Shore?"

Nature’s Classroom

Penaluna’s journey to the North Shore to finish a couple of credits for graduation highlights the commitment of the students who attend Superior Studies. After all, there has to be some compelling reason for students and faculty to continue an academic schedule well after their friends and colleagues have moved on to their summer vacations or first post-college jobs.

Superior Studies students generally take one or two courses a summer term, with classes meeting once or twice a week. Thursdays and Fridays typically offer some flexibility, as many classes take field trips on these days. "One of the biggest advantages to Superior Studies is the emphasis on hands-on experience and practical application," said Hoffman. Many courses combine classroom lectures with field trips to myriad locations along the North Shore.

Last summer, students toured a working sawmill, witnessed a horse logger plying his trade, visited the North Shore Mining Co., went through exhibits at the International Wolf Center and took in the new Great Lakes Aquarium at Lake Superior Center in Duluth. "Every student is given the opportunity to participate in as many of these trips as they want," added Hoffman. "It may be required for a particular class, but other students are encouraged to come along for the trip."

This flexibility is critical to the character of Superior Studies. With class sizes that range from five to 10 students, courses are less structured than during the academic year, and students and faculty are encouraged to share ideas and experiences. This is perhaps best realized through the occasional Monday or Tuesday evening group discussions that are offered to examine an issue in greater detail.

During the past few summers, David Abazs, a North Shore resident, has been invited to talk about sustainable and community-based agriculture. Two summers ago, Neuzil was asked up to Wolf Ridge to discuss the specifics of the Minnesota wolf-management policy he had played an integral role in creating. The time he spent with the students piqued his interest in the program. "I had a wonderful experience with the students," Neuzil said. "And the faculty they brought together really impressed me — people such as Paul Gruchow and Joe DesJardins are well known in their fields."

"We try to take advantage of all of the resources available to us in this area," Hoffman said, "whether it be bringing in guest lecturers or going out for site visits. We offer students the chance to reflect on the full breadth of an issue, where they can actually witness a logging operation firsthand or watch industrial forestry at work, and then compare that with the experience of the horse logger."

Taking those experiences back to the classroom often results in a more meaningful discussion about the issues rather than simply reading about them in textbooks or hearing about them in lectures.

Weekends in the Wild

After learning about the environment during the week, students are anxious to immerse themselves in the beauty of the surrounding wilderness on the weekends. Many take advantage of Wolf Ridge’s central location to embark on short trips canoeing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and backpacking along the Superior Hiking Trail.

This past summer students also took a number of weekend trips beyond the typical camping outing. A group of students went to Grand Marais to visit the North House Folk School where traditional craftsmaking is still practiced. Another weekend trip took students to Rossport, Ontario, to hear about the establishment of the Canadian National Marine Conservation Area. And still others took Highway 61 up to Grand Portage to see the national monument there.

Like the academic program itself, opportunities to have new experiences along the North Shore are not limited only to the flannel-and-sandal crowd. However, the chance to rappel down a sheer slate cliff or to kayak on Lake Superior is always waiting.

"You always get a range of experiences," Hoffman said. "Some students are even more experienced in the woods than the instructors — they’ve been doing outdoor activities their whole lives. The experienced kids become the teachers and the kids with no experience become the learners, but soon these two groups become indistinguishable."

The transformation from novice to veteran often begins to take place during the first week of the program, when students and faculty take a weeklong trip together hiking, canoeing or kayaking. "For the instructors," Hoffman said, "the most rewarding thing is to see the student who is open to the possibilities, soaking all of these things in, and by the end of a trip they’re standing in the rain, exhausted, and not really realizing how much they have changed."

Ultimately, nature is the great equalizer. The Baptism River doesn’t care how much your canoe costs or what kind of paddle you’re using. It just wants you to respect its presence. And when you have 20 rods left on a killer portage and black flies swirl around your head in a Simuliidae halo, it doesn’t matter what kind of backpack you’re wearing or what you did before coming to Superior Studies.

This equality might be one of the most powerful elements of Superior Studies. The program offers everyone — teachers and students, regardless of background — the ability to learn and gain experience from the same point of entry.

The View From Here

On a clear day at Wolf Ridge, you can see across a blanket of green treetops that eventually leads to Superior’s deep, unforgiving water before it melds peacefully into the dusty gray of the horizon. The vista appears endless.

It is this sense of limitless possibilities that continues to drive Deason, Hoffman and others involved in Superior Studies. In August, the Superior Studies program received word that it had been awarded a $300,000 federal Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant. The money will be used primarily to expand the program’s reach and provide better support for its students.

Deason intends to create a larger consortium of schools involved in Superior Studies by opening enrollment to any school in the Midwest that offers an environmental studies program. With a larger pool of prospective students, there is hope that Superior Studies can eventually offer year-round programming at Wolf Ridge. Deason also is optimistic that this sort of symbiotic relationship will lead to greater information sharing among the schools.

The grant will provide more funds for student scholarships and offer administrative and technological support for the ever-expanding Superior Studies library (which has 5,000 volumes and a pledge from the U.S. Forestry Service to donate a great number of research papers). Finally, Superior Studies will host a national environmental studies conference at Wolf Ridge in October 2001. "It’s important for us to expand the diversity of the programming we offer here," Deason said, "and the FIPSE grant will allow us that luxury."

As chair of the environmental studies program at St. Thomas, Hoffman hopes that opportunities for students to learn about the environment in new and interesting ways do not end with the Superior Studies program. "I’ve learned a lot about the importance of teaching and learning in new environments through my experience with Superior Studies," Hoffman noted.

His efforts to seek new experiences for St. Thomas students will increase this academic year when Hoffman visits programs in the far reaches of North and Central America. At the invitation of a former student, he will visit the Cordova Science Center in Cordova, Alaska, to discuss possible internship and educational opportunities there. Hoffman also will travel to Guatemala next spring to research similar possibilities through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, which is affiliated with St. Thomas.

But for now, his focus is set on the present.

As the sun settles on the top branches of the Norway pines that crowd the edge of Lake Gegoka near the faculty cabins, Hoffman pauses to appreciate yet another postcard moment on the North Shore: "I just never get used to the sunsets up here."

To learn more about Superior Studies, contact Steve Hoffman, (651) 962-5723, or send e-mail to smhoffman@stthomas.edu.

Previous Superior Studies Course Offerings

Minnesota Natural HistoryLiterature and EnvironmentEndangered CulturesConservation BiologySeminar on SustainabilityWriting about Nature