March 3, 2013

Course teaches students how to read the land

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — This week I was a visitor at North Country Community College’s Ticonderoga campus, where I met with students in Bio 160: Adirondack Biology.

I was invited to the class by Adjunct Biology Instructor Malinda Bergamini Chapman.

Chapman grew up in Lake Placid and holds an M.A. in science education from Syracuse University. Although she is a seasoned teacher, this is the first year she has offered Adirondack Biology in Ticonderoga.

The course has been offered for years at NCCC’s Saranac Lake and Malone campuses but Chapman’s passion about the subject clearly must have influenced the administration’s decision to offer it in Ticonderoga.

When speaking about teaching Bio 160, Chapman explained that it is not simply a field biology class. For her, teaching local natural history reinforces the sense of place that makes learning important to students, to educators and to education.

The undergraduate students in Bio 160 are pursuing diverse degrees including history, criminal justice, human services and writing. They are joined by a colleague of Chapman’s who is a NCCC math and computer science instructor as well as two community members who are auditing the class.

They have in common a desire to understand what they see in the woods.

The core text for Bio 160 is Mike Storey’s book “Why the Adirondacks Look the Way They Do.”  Other field guides and related publications, many written by scholars and educators from the Adirondack region, come out of Chapman’s backpack when discussions in the field warrant clarification or when students are learning identification skills.

The setting of the NCCC campus in Ticonderoga is distinct from the other campuses — it’s in the Champlain Valley.

With the LaChute River literally a stone’s throw from the building, Lake Champlain a short paddle down the LaChute, Lake George just upstream, Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area a very quick carpool ride away and plentiful micro-habitats throughout the region, there is excellent access to special wild places with a tremendous amount of biodiversity.

Chapman and her students have taken full advantage of the resources. 

So far field expeditions have included the Berrymill Trail near Putnam Pond, Roger’s Rock Campground on Lake George and the Huntington Forest in Newcomb.

The Newcomb trip included a visit with marten expert Paul Jensen of SUNY ESF. The day I visited we snowshoed to Jabe Pond.

The upcoming field trip schedule reads like a geotoursim itinerary: the Chapman family’s sugar bush, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, Cheney Mountain, Gull Bay Preserve and the Crown Point bird-banding station.

It has been a dream of educators at many levels and in many schools — especially those who attended the CATS Outdoor Education Planning Meetings last year and those who have for years been involved in the Adirondack Curriculum Project — for students to have an experiential knowledge of Adirondack natural history. Many young people will experience the forests and wetlands through recreation, but without educators like Malinda — as her students know her — a lot of questions might remain unanswered.

Within a day of meeting with the NCCC Adirondack Biology students, I heard on the radio that the ability to write computer code will one day be as important as the ability to read.

I contend that being able to read the land and know the code of the forest is equally important and may make our lives more fun.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at