The Creation of the Mojave Desert Field Guide

Students and professors come together to create a field guide for the insects of the Mojave Desert.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 8, 2016)—Hot sand, furry tarantulas and splendid collections of joshua trees inhabit the Mojave Desert. Located outside of St. George, Utah, the Lytle Ranch functions as an oasis where students can study the entomology of the region and its rainshadow desert ecosystem.

In spring term of 2014, a group of seventeen BYU students and three professors embarked on a six week project to create a field guide of insects in the Mojave Desert. The field guide was finally published in October of 2016. The creation of this field guide was especially unique because the written citations and pictures were all created in the field.

“Usually you have a field trip where students go out and then comes back to process their data. We had a lab set up in the Lytle Ranch classroom with computers and microscopes,” explained John Bennion, professor of English at BYU. “There wasn’t any lag-time between the field experience and the lab experience.”  

Bennion explained one of the main reasons for this field guide was to allow students practical experience. “Our students’ learning was accelerated as they created this field guide for a real world audience. The field guide will be used by teachers and students of biology who visit Lytle Ranch,” he said.

Each day, students received technical writing instruction from Bennion, local entomology instruction from biology professor Riley Nelson and art instruction from teaching assistant Lim Kheng Saik under the direction of art professor Mark Graham. Most of the learning on Lytle Ranch, however, was driven by the students.

“Everything in the university becomes more and more specialized. This is a way of getting away from that specialization because we are studying the natural world from the perspective of drawing, and writing and biology,” said Bennion. The field guide functioned as a way to allow students to work on a project and learn at the same time, with a measurable result.

Andrea McRae, a biology-teaching major, has been interested in bugs for most of her life, even having her own ant farm when she was younger.  One of her favorite parts of working on the field guide was the informal teaching atmosphere. “I liked the whole environment – that it was always class time but at the same time didn’t feel super stressed. Any time of the day or in the middle of the night we could go outside to look for bugs,” she said.

A favorite activity of the participants was Beach Party Wednesday. “Every Wednesday we would go out with our sleeping bags and sleep in front of the creek and set up flood lights to attract bugs and catch them,” explained McRae.  

This integrated classroom setting in the field is called experiential learning. Bennion and Nelson both have worked on a variety of projects to help students get out of the lecture hall, including this one. McRae mentioned that when she runs her own classroom she wants to build a curriculum around integrating different disciplines. “I could talk to teachers in chemistry and physics and we could do a unit about water, and students could learn all the properties at once,” she continued.

Hadley Griggs, a BYU English student who participated in making the field guide, said that one of her favorite parts of the experience was that the students lived and worked together in close quarters for the whole six weeks. “The most valuable part of the trip for me was being surrounded by a bunch of people who look differently at the world and have a different education,” she said.

“A big skill I gained was technical writing. All the writing I had done up to that point had been creative. But as soon as I started writing for the field guide, I realized the organization of technical writing was following a formula and it was very different than the writing I had done before. That experience helps me a lot now, especially now that I’m working in magazines,” commented Griggs.

Griggs, as an English major, came across a poster in the JFSB advertising the field guide project. Because of her love for camping, she was immediately interested. Time out in nature is what also drew Weston Gleave, a biology major, to join the field guide project.

“I had been in college for a couple years before doing that trip, and I was feeling really burned out,” Gleave said. “It just felt different and was huge for reminding me that I can have the experience that I want in college. This trip reminded me what I like about college.”  

Gleave also enjoyed sharing experiences with other students discussing issues of the environment and life. “We had discussions where we would be forced to talk about what our different perspectives were on a wide number of issues,” said Gleave.

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

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