Mojave Desert

Where the desert is the classroom

Washington University’s unique Pathfinder program takes students on field trips to explore the ecosystems they've studied. The hallmark of the 18-month Pathfinder Program in Environmental Sustainability led by Ray Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, is the field trips. The trips cap semester-long case studies of ecosystems that embody the problem of environmental sustainability.In spring 2015, the freshmen, including Emily Goering and Jordan Chow, traveled to the Mojave National Preserve in California to study this fragile ecosystem, to witness the degradation people are causing and to discuss the politics associated with the formation of the preserve in 1994. 

The impact of past and future climate change is also written in the desert for the students to read. At the peak of the last Ice Age, 18,000 years ago, many of the desert playa, or dry lake beds, were full of water and home to fish and shellfish. The water vanished a few thousand years ago when shifts in Earth’s orbit changed wind systems and rainfall. Today the Mojave National Preserve is the driest place in North America. But the students could also see signs in the desert plants of modern, as well as past, climate change. It’s the kind of experience one remembers for life. “It’s very difficult to get the students back in the vans after the trip to get them back to classes,” Arvidson says.

Video by Tom Malkowicz and Diana Lutz. This article is adapted from a story originally published in the Source. 

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