Picturesque, in person

Students learn on-site at the Grand Canyon.

A large bird soars overhead, as if surveying the group below. One student leans forward on the metal guardrail and looks over the edge into the depths of the Grand Canyon.

“Oh, wow,” he says, taking a sharp breath. He is seeing the Canyon for the first time, but it’s a typical reaction for even the Northern Arizona University students in this group who have been here before.

Their guide today is philosophy lecturer Matthew Goodwin. This trip isn’t an excuse to get out of the classroom. Goodwin organized the trip around the curriculum of his environmental ethics course, which focuses on the ways in which people can generate emotions as a result of experiencing their education, not just absorbing it.

Learning to be amazed

The trip began with an idea Goodwin had when he requested to teach environmental ethics this past spring.

“You cannot learn about environmental ethics without being in the environment,” Goodwin says. “Going to the Grand Canyon, because of its proximity to the Flagstaff campus, was a natural choice.”

To achieve this goal, Goodwin received a grant from the Northern Arizona University Parent Leadership Council, which, in addition to advocating on behalf of the parents of students, uses donations to fund projects that enhance learning on campus.

“It gave students a great opportunity to think more deeply about things we have discussed in the classroom,” Goodwin says. “We can bring it full-circle out here and make it relevant for them. This class is thinking about a lot of environmental concepts. In the classroom, this can be very abstract, so by bringing them out here, they can not only visualize nature  hey can also feel it.

Goodwin explains that too many people incorrectly believe that seeing something through technological means – television, pictures, or the internet – is an adequate substitute for experiencing it themselves.

“You cannot anticipate what the Grand Canyon is by looking at pictures,” Goodwin explains. “It’s just a small glimpse of what it truly is. Too often, people get their idea of nature from the Nature Channel. When you get out into nature, it is so much more beautiful.”

From painting to teaching

Even those who have been to the park multiple times cannot compete with the knowledge and insight of Bruce Aiken, an Honors Faculty in Residence who accompanied Goodwin and the students on the trip. His time at Northern Arizona University partially funded by a grant from the Arizona Public Service, Aiken and his family lived in the canyon for more than 30 years.

During this time, he worked for the National Park Service, while painting what are widely considered to be the some of the most vivid depictions of the chasm ever captured by an artist.

The Canyon is more than just a vista in a painting for Aiken. The world-famous artist considers it his home. Goodwin says he didn’t have to ask Aiken twice – or even once – to come. 

“Bruce was very excited about sharing what he knew about the Grand Canyon, including his experiences and his insights,” Goodwin says. “I had originally just asked him to come speak to the class, but when I told him that we planned on driving up here, he asked to go.”

The students were afforded a chance to spend the day listening and learning from Aiken, who has had his works featured in the White House and by NASA.

“Bruce’s talks were amazing,” Goodwin says. “I was blown away by what he said – he really brought the issues the Grand Canyon faces to the students and made them relevant. He was able to point out things about the Canyon that most wouldn’t have seen. He was tremendously inspirational for the students.”

Nature in danger

Goodwin was glad that his students were able to see the Canyon and marvel at the incredible rock formations through a scope he brought along. However, much of the education that took place at the Canyon was not about geology, but about how the environmental protection of the national park has been breached in the past and may be violated in the future.

The class hiked out to Maricopa Point, where a pier of the Canyon wall juts out into the abyss. Here, Goodwin showed the class the Orphan Mine, where uranium was mined out of the wall of the Grand Canyon for almost twenty years until the shaft’s closure in 1972, when such mining became politically unpopular. The cleanup of the mine is still ongoing, and has cost the federal government millions of dollars thus far. 

“In class, we’ve been talking about environmental issues, which includes mining in the Grand Canyon,” Goodwin says. “There is still contamination from mining here. We can talk all the time about environmental degradation in the Grand Canyon, but, when students actually go out there, they can see the smog and haze. It becomes a real thing – that’s part of the experience.”

Goodwin says the goal of his class is to get students to think about ethics as more than just the way people treat one another – both now, and after the class is over.

“Fifty years ago, ethics was always just about ethics between people,” Goodwin says. “Then, we started thinking about other forms of ethics. An entire generation said, ‘You know, we need to think about the responsibilities we have.' It’s thinking about global issues with regard to nature, animals, habitats, future generations, and the health of the world, as a whole.”