For some lucky undergraduates, fall break wasn’t a break from their courses, though it did involve zip-lining in Costa Rica and riding camels in Morocco. Courses that include all-expenses paid trips during spring or fall break provide memorable lessons, even while they can be expensive and don’t always draw students for the right reasons, students and professors indicated.
While course selection opens the first week of December, beginning with seniors on Dec. 4, students wishing to take courses with trips have already started or submitted applications for them. Courses for the coming semester that will offer trips during spring break include FRS 116: The Everglades Today and Tomorrow, a freshman seminar on climate change in the biosphere that will visit the Florida Everglades; HUM 336: Shakespeare 450, a course on Shakespeare that will travel to London and Stratford-upon-Avon to view performances given in honor of the playwright’s 450th anniversary; and COM 317: East Asian Gardens, a seminar that will visit Kyoto to study the significance of gardens in East Asia.
Students who have taken courses that offered break trips explained that the trips were an important part of their motivation for taking the course, though never the deciding factor.
“We joked around that the trip was a pretty big factor for everybody, but it seems like everyone is in it for various reasons and approaching it from different perspectives,” Natasha Madorsky ’17 said. She is currently enrolled in FRS 125: Global Environmental Change: Science, Technology and Policy, a freshman seminar on climate change and energy sustainability that traveled to Costa Rica over fall break.
Meanwhile, geosciences professor Gerta Keller, whose GEO 365: Evolution and Catastrophes course travels abroad each fall to study mass extinctions, frankly acknowledged that some students are drawn to her class by the appeal of the trip rather than the content of the course. But she noted that the students’ motivations for picking the class were not overly important to her.
“As long as they learn about science and the environment, that’s great,” Keller said.
Classes that incorporate trips are especially common in environmental-related disciplines, such as geosciences. Keller took her class to Morocco this year to study the unique fossil and rock formations in the Anti-Atlas mountain range.
Professor George Philander, also in the geosciences department, took his FRS 158: The Hedgehog and the Fox course, a freshman seminar on climate change, to South Africa in spring 2011 after he had noticed the “enormous biodiversity” and unique climate surrounding Cape Town during his own travels.
Professors and their departments weigh these benefits against the high travel costs involved. The GEO 365 trip to Morocco cost roughly $25,000 for 11 students in total, according to Keller.
Break trips are typically funded by the department associated with the course but can also receive funding from outside sources. Philander explained that an alumnus expended a special offer to foot the bill for his 2011 freshman seminar trip.
“Princeton is obviously a wealthy place,” he noted.
Emmiliese von Clemm ’14, a participant in Philander’s FRS 158 course, said she thought the University should only sponsor course trips that are essential.
“Sending a group of students that far for a single week is a little hard to justify,” von Clemm said. “A week is a very short time, I think, in terms of the relative cost and the effort it takes to get that many people there.”
Most professors and students, however, indicated that what they gained from the experience was well worth the cost.
“The best learning, I think, is hands-on. You get some feel of how you gather data, how you make decisions,” Keller said. “The only way to do that and to really make an impression on students is to go into the field.”
Both Keller and Philander also noted the value of the cultural exposure that such trips brought. Philander noted how it changed the focus and perspective of his course when his students reached out to high school students living in the slums of Cape Town.
“It was quite unexpected,” Philander said, noting how students forged relationships with impoverished students living in the slums of Cape Town. “It made a very big impression on most students.”
von Clemm said the trip changed both the angle of the course for the remainder of the semester and her own perpsectives.
“It definitely changed the way I think about a lot of the issues that were brought up," she said of the trip.
Although often very work-intensive, course trips can also be exciting recreational experiences: Students in FRS 125 hiked, visited a hot spring and went zip-lining in Costa Rica, while Keller’s students rode camels in Morocco.
But, von Clemm reflected, students should not see the trips simply as tour deals.
“It’s not just a chance to have some fun on Princeton’s dollar, but there’s actually a big educational benefit from it,” von Clemm said.