Back to the Basics: Experiential Learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska

Back to the Basics: Experiential Learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska

The Hobbit Hole is, as Zach Brown, a PhD student in Environmental Earth System Science, would say, a very special place. I’m not referring to anywhere in the Shire, but rather a 5-acre plot of pristine wilderness in Southeast Alaska, sitting between the amazing Glacier Bay National Park and Tongass, the nation’s largest National Forest. It may not be in Middle-earth, but it’s still pretty magical.

Experiential Learning

Inspiration, as explained by Brown, is to be amazed by a place or system and empowered to some kind of call to action. Most people working in fields such as environmental science, conservation, and sustainability, do so because they were inspired at an early age by some experience in the natural world. Behavioral psychologists have studied this extensively, and a common conclusion is that a person’s values and attitudes about the environment are directly tired to their connection with nature (Schultz et al., 2004; Nisbet et al., 2008).

This is certainly true for Brown. Brown grew up in Gustavus, a tiny town close by the Hobbit Hole, where he spent a large part of his youth exploring his natural surroundings. Even today, in his adulthood, Brown escapes into wilderness every chance he gets.

According to Brown, the settings that most students are working in today are not conducive to making connections with nature. It’s hard to embrace a sustainability ethic if you don’t understand where your resources come from and how quickly they are being used versus regenerated. Most students today are so disconnected from the natural world that they cannot recognize the source of the water they drink, the food they eat, or the gas they put in their cars. This is no fault of their own. The opportunity for field experiences, especially in educational institutions, is becoming more and more rare.

Learning happens best when students are engaged in the material. Field schools are basically exciting and adventurous classrooms, making them prime sources of learning and inspiration.

Inian Islands Institute – Goals and Curriculum

Brown is hoping to purchase the Hobbit Hole and use it to establish an experiential learning field school. He is currently is the process of raising funds to purchase the land from the adventurous Alaskan couple who lived there all their lives and recently put it up for sale. The proposed Inian Islands Institute would give students the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and inspire them to become environmental leaders.

Brown plans to initially target undergraduate university students for month-long field courses at the Inian Islands Institute, though he would like to eventually expand to high school students as well. His goal is to maintain small classes of 10-15 students and accredit the program such that students can get university credit for taking this course. Brown has already garnered interest from Stanford University and Pomona College, his alma mater.

Ecology will be the main focus of the Inian Islands Institute’s curriculum. The Hobbit Hole is located in a rare region of the world that hasn’t been completely perturbed by human impact, where ecological interactions are still intact and clearly visible. Learning about ecology in that type of environment is fundamentally different than reading about it in a book. 

A crucial piece of the learning experience at Brown’s field school will be immersion. Students will almost completely sever societal ties and get their hands dirty.  They’ll collect rainwater, garden, hunt, and fish; in short, they will learn to live off the land, to some degree.  

The major hurdle for Brown right now is securing the funds to purchase the Hobbit Hole. With three energetic co-founders, Lauren Oakes, Aaron Strong, and Lida Teneva, and a solid advisory council, Brown is ready to get this project going. In the meantime, Zach will teach a Sophomore College in Southeast Alaska focused on coupled human-natural systems, this upcoming summer. At the end of the program, the students will be given the opportunity to visit the Hobbit Hole.

What are your thoughts on experiential learning? How has a place or experience changed your thinking?  Please feel free to ask questions and share experiences below.


Mandy McLean is a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science.


Schultz, P.Wesley, Chris Shriver, Jennifer J Tabanico, and Azar M Khazian. 2004. “Implicit Connections with Nature.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24 (1) (March): 31–42. doi:10.1016/S0272-4944(03)00022-7.

Nisbet, E. K., J. M. Zelenski, and S. A. Murphy. 2008. “The Nature Relatedness Scale: Linking Individuals’ Connection With Nature to Environmental Concern and Behavior.” Environment and Behavior 41 (5) (August 1): 715–740. doi:10.1177/0013916508318748.