What is NHFQ?

A student class on Santa Cruz Island

Up close with a Striped Whipsnake

Started by Ken Norris in 1973, Natural History Field Quarter (NHFQ) is a 15-unit upper division Environmental Studies class taught each spring quarter. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology students can also receive 10 units of upper-division credit for the course. The course is open to all majors.

Core Curriculum

Observation and inquiry are two of the cornerstones of science and many other disciplines. The primary goal of NHFQ is to teach you how to develop your own knowledge about the natural world through your own direct personal observation, inquiry, and reflection. This will come from practicing your observation skills at every opportunity, intentionally applying your curiosity to the world around you, and engaging in critical thinking to gain insight into nature’s complexities. It will also require significant amounts of patience, discipline, and humility.

While on NHFQ, you will have 3 main learning tools to help you develop your nature observation and inquiry skills:

  • The time and effort you put into directly observing & researching the natural world, both in and outside of class.
  • The attention you give to recording your own knowledge-development journey in your field journal.
  • Your willingness to support, contribute to, interact with, and be inspired by the observations, questions, presentations, reflections, poetry, realizations, etc. of your peers and instructor-team. 

In order to reach this goal, NHFQ integrates the following core curricular elements:  

  1. We live, camp, and learn outside for extended periods of time. Over the spring quarter, we visit a variety of natural ecosystems across California. This allows us to witness the spring season as it moves northward and upward across the diverse landscapes of California.
  2. We slow down and minimize distractions from the larger human world. When out exploring the environment, we move slowly in order to explore things in detail. We develop practices to stay present in our environment as much as possible.
  3. We observe organisms up close. This includes: collecting and keying plants; watching and identifying birds; catching and identifying lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders, insects, and other invertebrates; live-trapping and identifying small mammals; and examining dead organisms, tracks, and scat.
  4. We research and discuss current land management and conservation issues at the places we visit. Whenever possible, we invite current land managers and practitioners to discuss these issues with us.

As a student, you do not need to have any previous experience with these “elements”. We will teach you how to comfortably live outdoors as well as how to closely engage with organisms both safely and respectfully.

Safe Learning/Working Environment

NHFQ is different from most other academic courses in two major ways: 1. The course takes place in remote field settings, often far from important resources such as emergency medical services. 2. We live together in close quarters, can’t get away from each other, and are separated from our broader support communities. For these reasons, it is vital to co-create a community that is both safe and supportive. A few of NHFQ’s specific safe learning environment expectations include: participating fully in the course, giving and receiving feedback, respecting one another even when you disagree, creating a supportive inclusive environment for everyone, following the non-negotiable safety rules, and practicing proactive self-care. We talk in detail about these expectations and others at the beginning of the course. 

Professional Development

The skills you develop on NHFQ are transferable to a diversity of career paths, including land management, conservation, ecology, field biology, earth science, education, art, writing, and much more. These include the core skills of nature observation and inquiry, as well as topical knowledge of the places, organisms, and issues we study. But they also include the skills of creating a safe learning/working environment and living comfortably outside for extended periods of time. Taken together, your experience on NHFQ will prepare you for similar professional work environments in your future. Throughout the course, we will focus on your professional development through specific assignments, discussions, and networking opportunities with the many practicing professionals we will interact with.

Lifelong Benefits

In addition to career preparation, NHFQ can help you develop a lifelong practice of engaging with nature that can contribute to your long-term physical, mental, and emotional health. It is also likely that the peer community created on NHFQ will outlast the duration of the course and contribute to both your personal and professional network that you build throughout the rest of your time in college and beyond. And finally, living and learning together outside in a supportive atmosphere can be a lot of fun!