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 Environmental Studies class taught each spring quarter. 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 diversity 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 we are out exploring the environments we are staying in, 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 plants; watching birds; catching lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders, insects, and other invertebrates; live-trapping small mammals; and examining dead organisms 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. 

The attention you devote to developing your skills of observation, inquiry, and reflection are transferable to a diversity of career paths, including land management, conservation, science, education, art, writing, and much more. In addition, these skills can help you develop a lifelong practice of engaging with nature that can contribute to your long-term physical, mental, and emotional health. At times, it can be challenging to stay focused on developing these skills given the state of the world. Many previous alumni report that their experiences and skills learned on this course have helped them confront and weather these pressing issues throughout the rest of their lives. 

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 necessary to co-create a community that is both safe and supportive. A few of NHFQ’s specific safe learning environment expectations include: giving and receiving feedback, respecting one another even when you disagree, 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. 

The safe learning environment we create on NHFQ will help you develop the skills to support similar professional work environments in your future. In addition, your own learning goals will be magnified when we actively work to support each other. It is also very likely that the community will far 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!

A few selected alumni quotes:

Being given the gift of time—time to really slow down and observe—[was very important]. At no other point in my college education was this incorporated into the learning experience; yet good science depends utterly on this very thing: focused, unbiased, direct observation.

“The freedom of our journalistic style was great. Sometimes an observation would be a feeling (writing, drawing, singing, etc) and exploring/learning different ways of expressing that feeling was important to bringing people's passions about the environment out.”

“Very important to my learning experience on Natural History Field Quarter was the genuine excitement fostered by our community. We were able to gather and eat and sing and key plants and talk about fungus and soil types and all facets of natural history goodness.”

“Being shown, not told, but shown that this world's natural beauty is more complex than can ever truly be understood. Therefore, proving to me that there will never be a scenario where I can find myself bored or unable to find awe in my surroundings. Also, the truly raw, unreserved connection gained to the natural world as well as the 30+ people who shared this experience with me. The natural world and these people specifically will be a part of me wherever I go, and allow me to proceed in life with a confidence I thought unattainable before participating in NHFQ.”

“NHFQ really made me realize how many different variables there are to take into account when managing wild lands. There are so many intricacies and complex relationships to consider that most people aren't aware of. It really takes a diverse team of experts to truly do any management issue justice.”

“Before Field Quarter, I had no idea what I wanted to do, cared deeply for the environment but lacked expertise and skill to feel competent to make any real impact in a professional manner. Now that I have completed the Field Quarter, I work as a Naturalist full-time. In my eyes it's all because of Field Quarter, which filled me with equal parts passion, wonder, dedication, and a practical skill set to transform my passion into environmental change.”