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UNC students standing next to a beat up car near the Mississippi River

Knowledge Goes Beyond Coursework During Geography, GIS and Sustainability Class Trip

Ten UNC students traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to help clean up the Mississippi River. The trip was part of GEO 111, a course designed to give students hands-on field experience and equip them to use that experience to solve real-world problems.

When picturing Spring Break, what comes to mind? A fun-filled trip to the beach with friends? Kicking back for some R&R with a stay-cation? How about dredging for trash on a barge floating along the Mississippi River?

For 10 UNC students and their professor, the latter is exactly the form that Spring Break 2023 took. As the week dawned, Karen Barton, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Geography, GIS, & Sustainability within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, loaded up with her students and struck out for Memphis, Tennessee.

Their mission? To spend the ensuing days floating down the Mississippi River and removing as much waste as possible.

The trip was part of GEO 111, a course designed to give students hands-on field experience and equip them to use that experience to solve real-world problems. The trip was coordinated in conjunction with Living Lands & Waters, an Illinois-based nonprofit that pitches itself as the only “industrial strength” river cleanup organization in the business.

Once they arrived, Barton and her students spent five days working on a garbage barge in the Mississippi alongside volunteers from Living Lands & Waters and students from two other universities.

Their days consisted of three hour shifts in the morning, a quick break for lunch, then another three hours in the afternoon. Students pulled all sorts of unusual and unexpected items from the river, including poker chips, old shoes, animal remains, plenty of old plastic and some worn and weathered baby dolls.

“Those were pretty creepy,” Barton said.

Trash collected from the Mississippi River

Trash UNC students collected from the Mississippi River during a Spring Break trip.

UNC students leaning against a large tree limb near the Mississippi River

UNC students taking a break from pulling trash out of the Mississippi River.

And although the days were grueling, the students had an unforgettable time.

“The students I meet on these courses and those that I work with in the field on service learning projects are students that I am still connected with,” Barton said. “These experiences first-hand change their lives.”

That certainly rings true for Joey Andrade-Schuch, a then-senior Environmental and Sustainability Studies major who went on the trip.

“It changed me quite a bit,” he said. “I’ve never noticed trash like I do now. It’s everywhere, and I just think, ‘If I don’t pick this up, who will?’”

But the impact of the trip didn’t stop there. For Andrade-Schuch, the experience on the river shaped the way he thinks about his future.

“I had no idea there were so many ways to get involved with things like this,” Andrade-Schuch said. “I’ll definitely be looking into opportunities like this and in public service as I look ahead.”

For Barton, helping give students like Joey these formative experiences is where the true value lies in field courses like GEO 111.

“Every time we take students out on field learning experiences, they get to do so much that isn’t traditionally measurable, but that has a tremendous impact on them,” Barton said. “Whether that’s making connections with the people in charge, setting up jobs or internships, or discovering something they’re passionate about.” 

– written by Duard Headley 

Field courses like GEO 111 are made possible in part to contributions from individual donors. Any contributions made to these programs go directly toward helping more students be able to participate in these one-of-a-kind experiences.

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