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The power of nature to transform learning

ASU sustainability teacher offers environmental exercises to Havasu students to tap into creativity through meditation

Woman sitting on rock
July 09, 2019

When most people go out and experience nature, they usually dictate the terms and have an agenda.

An Arizona State University teacher says adopting "a humbler posture" by allowing nature to reveal itself in its own way can enhance a student’s learning and become a profound life experience.

“We encounter nature in a technological way because we’re delineating, calculating, categorizing and classifying,” said Sharon Harvey, who teaches sustainability courses at ASU at Lake Havasu and directs the general studies degree program. “I try to teach students to open themselves up to awe and mystery and listen. Once it captures our attention, our emotions are aroused and then it’s transformative.”

Harvey underwent a similar transformation in 1999 when she was studying at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She said she was coming home from school one day when she spotted a lone tree in the heart of the city.

“It was this twig of a tree pointing up to the sky, coming out of the concrete jungle,” Harvey said. “The sky was never bluer. Nature came alive. It captured my attention and got me to thinking that objects have a life of their own. I was changed.”

That same sort of passion runs in her family. Harvey said a few years before her aha moment, her father had a similar experience when watching a news report on the Rwandan genocide. After the reporter signed off, Harvey’s father stood up, turned off the television and announced he was heading to Africa because “somebody has to help those people.” Days later he quit his job and lived and worked in several Rwandan refugee camps for the next two years.

“His story isn’t all that unique because everybody has that capacity to listen to life and respond accordingly,” Harvey said.

That’s what Environmental Philosophy and Policy, an upper division class she teaches, is all about. The goal of the class, Harvey says, is for students to experience nature from not merely a scientific standpoint but from a meditative and poetic relation to nature. 

That means developing a greater awareness of the natural world and making a deeper emotional connection through waiting and observation. When not in class, students are instructed to keep a journal and go outside in certain spots in the Lake Havasu area for periods of time throughout the semester, to just wait, look around and be. They are to allow nature to minister to them, to nurture their senses and to recreate their spirits.

Harvey calls these “environmental exercises.”

Bird at a lake

A waterfowl at Site 5 on Lake Havasu, on Thursday, May 23, 2019. ASU students in Sharon Harvey's Environmental Philosophy and Policy class are encouraged to let nature to minister to them.

“Truth, ideas, nature and reality all have this unveiling and mysterious character and reveal this to you. So now you have to explore it,” Harvey said. “Mystery is often overlooked in education. I try to emphasize that mystery is an important part of knowledge.” 

Visualizing a sustainable world as it might evolve over the next century requires an education that supports diverse and novel thinking, said Raymond Van der Riet, director of ASU at Lake Havasu.

“Sharon Harvey uses her thoughtful pedagogies to guide students in developing this mindset,” Van der Riet said. “New and enhanced problem-solving strategies begin to be revealed when we learn to see anew.”

The science community seems to agree with Harvey that more time spent in the great outdoors is good for the soul. It also comes with other benefits such as reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure.

ASU senior Nic Troffer said Harvey’s class has another benefit: It spurs his creativity. Troffer, who is studying biology with an emphasis in environmental science, said it was in Harvey’s classroom where he thought of the inventions he’s trying to bring to market: a textured water bottle, a topical salve and a medical training uniform.

“I have always gone to nature for inspiration but taking Ms. Harvey’s class I was able to look for solutions internally and apply it to real life problems,” Troffer said. “The class provided an opportunity for me to think on a deeper level.”

Joel Silverstein, a dive expert with three decades in underwater exploration who is also a published author, said Harvey’s class also helped him to see nature in a new light.

"Dr. Harvey has a unique way of helping the student understand that while we are guests observing the environment, we are also an integral part of that environment,” Silverstein said. “Learning how to appreciate life forms other than our own is essential to our day-to-day living." 

Now a biology teacher at Lake Havasu High School, Silverstein said he often uses Harvey’s teachings to pass along to his students. Recently he gave them an assignment on energy, photosynthesis and food webs. He said the results were astounding.

“The students that actually did the assignment experienced great joy and happiness. They had a chance to see things they had never thought of looking at,” Silverstein said. “This exercise resulted in their having a better understanding of the topics we were about to learn. They could relate to the environment in a way they had not done before.”

Harvey said her success rate with students is about 50%, given the challenge of dealing with a generation raised on technological gadgets and constant stimulation.

“The students who are in this other scientific mode aren’t as open to nature because it’s foreign to them, and they don’t know what to do without their gadgets,” Harvey said. “But at least they’ve had an opportunity to connect with nature and see it from a different angle.”

And for the ones who actually do make that connection with nature?

“They’ve told me their lives have been profoundly enriched,” Harvey said. “That transformative experience is not only good for their studies and good for their lives, but it's also good for nature.”

Top photo: Sharon Harvey, the first founding faculty member at ASU at Lake Havasu, spends time at Site 5 on the lake, on Thursday, May 23, 2019. The location is a favorite for her students. She guides them as they observe nature with wonder and learn about environmental philosophy and policy. She directs the general education program, as well as teaching religion, philosophy and sustainability courses. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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