Students Learn Lessons, Create Community at Green Oaks

July 21, 2010

This spring, a dozen Knox College students shared an unusual classroom and living space -- a 704-acre property where they gained skills in identifying plants, restoring the prairie, and working together as members of a community.

They lived and learned at the college's Green Oaks Biological Field Station, a research and recreation area in eastern Knox County, about 20 miles east of campus. The Green Oaks site, dotted with streams and lakes, includes uncut native forests, second-growth forests, and wide expanses of grassland.

"It's a really great environment for learning," said sophomore Julia Sievert, an environmental studies major from Seattle, Washington. "It's very rewarding."

As participants in Green Oaks Term, Sievert and other students made themselves at home in the refurbished but rustic Schurr Hall, where they rotated cooking, cleaning, dishwashing duties.

Everyone took the same academic curriculum with interdisciplinary classes in natural history, art, and anthropology-sociology -- each specifically designed to be taught at Green Oaks.

Leading the program were Green Oaks Term faculty members: Knox Biology Professor Stuart Allison, director of the biological field station; Associate Professor of Art Tony Gant; and Anthropology Professor Jon Wagner, director of Green Oaks Term.

For a natural history class project, junior Sara DeMaria collected the dirt that she and fellow "Oakies" (as they call themselves) tramped daily into Schurr Hall. She sifted through the soil to find healthy seeds, discovering about 11 of them every day.

Green Oaks Biological Field StationThe project was meant to heighten awareness about the role of humans as "seed dispersers," said DeMaria, a biology major from Columbus, Ohio.

"Dropping a seed in just the right environment could change an entire ecosystem, for good or ill," she said.

DeMaria had read about Green Oaks Term before she enrolled at Knox, and the program captured her attention.

"The idea of spending three months in the woods was just fascinating to me," she said.

Students who participated in Green Oaks Term attended classes on-site three mornings a week, and the rest of their time was largely unstructured.

"Once we left the classroom, class wasn't over," said sophomore Emily Young, an environmental studies major from Rock Island.

"We students had spontaneous discussions about our class material," she added. "We would go on a hike just for fun and identify plants and natural processes. We were constantly learning and reinforcing what we had learned."

They also taught themselves, and each another, a wide range of skills.

  • With help from resources in the Green Oaks library, they took apart, cleaned, and revived the engine on a riding mower that Knox College Dean Lawrence Breitborde donated to the biological field station several years ago. The vehicle now can haul small loads.
  • Utilizing the wood from old Memorial Gym bleachers, they built a 15-foot-long picnic table -- big enough for all of the Green Oaks students and faculty members.
  • They learned to make their own bread.

"I think those things not only brought us closer, but taught us what we're capable of," DeMaria said.Dean Breitborde on repurposed riding mower

Green Oaks Term students also spent much of their time restoring the prairie by removing invasive species of plants, such as black locust, sweet clover, and garlic mustard.

"You feel like you're invested in this, and you can see the positive work you're doing," said Andrew Raridon, a program assistant for Green Oaks Term. A Rockford native, Raridon graduated from Knox in 2009 with a major in anthropology-sociology, and he participated in Green Oaks Term as a junior.

The Oakies went on occasional field trips, and they made the half-hour drive into Galesburg once a week to stock up on groceries. Otherwise, they generally remained on the Green Oaks property, staying away from the Knox campus and most of their fellow students.

"We try and treat it like a study abroad program," Raridon said.

Gradually, they created their own community.

"Figuring out the logistics of living so closely together was interesting, especially at first," Young said. "We were all extremely polite and accommodating until we got to know each other well enough to act more naturally. It was an amazing process to slowly learn everyone's mannerisms and sense of humor."

By design, members of the Green Oaks community had limited access to modern-day technology. Schurr Hall is not equipped with a television set, for example. But Green Oaks students could log on to the Internet and record their experiences with a video camera.

"One of the things we really emphasize is interpersonal communication -- talking to one another, sitting around and discussing whatever," Raridon said. "We use technology, and it serves our purposes, but we don't let it control us out there."

"Green Oaks has really made us value a sense of community and a sense of place," he added. "We all sort of grow to be intertwined."

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.