Desert Comes to Life For Students

Photo By Jose Servin / el Don
Photo By Jose Servin / el Don
Photo By Jose Servin / el Don

By Jose Servin

As Professor Kimo Morris shines a black light on a scorpion he’s captured in the middle of the night, he describes to a group of absorbed students why it produces an unnatural neon glow.

This nighttime hike is part of Morris’ Desert Biology class in Joshua Tree National Park, a weekend camping trip of hands-on learning and exploring. It is the fourth trip that’s taken place since the biology department brought back its field classes in the 2014 fall semester at Santa Ana College.

“Classes like these are important not only because they fulfill transfer requirements, but also because they provide community enrichment,” Morris said.    

From the coast, they rose through the chaparral into the Mojave where it meets the Colorado Desert — like the Coahuila Indians did thousands of years before.       

The caravan of students drove into the desert over the asphalt that now covers long-forgotten footprints. The Coahuila trekked here for blue berries.

Later, prospectors traveled here to mine for gold. Morris’ students went to learn.

As they arrived, the desert heat intensified.

But like the native plant life, Morris’ students quickly adapted. Armed with their journals and water to combat the blast of the desert sun, these students marched into the Mojave to experience the desert landscapes they had only read about in textbooks.

“These classes are stress-relievers from my busy semesters. They’re fun, I learn so much, and I build great relationships with students and faculty,” said marine biology major Deborah Leopo.

She’s been on three field classes and has been accepted to the University of California in Santa Cruz.

Field classes have been a part of Santa Ana College’s history ever since now-retired professor Richard Bates began taking students into nature, Biology Department Chair Jorge Lopez said.

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“Back then, they would offer two classes per semester, and some were two-week long trips,” Lopez said.

 Lopez fell in love with biology when he traveled with Bates as a student at Santa Ana College in 1989.

“When I took these classes, I was sold. I knew I wanted to become a biologist, which is why I think they’re extremely valuable,” Lopez said.

After Bates retired, the classes were discontinued.   

When Lopez was hired as a biology professor at SAC, he brought the program back.

In the 2014 fall semester, Lopez, armed with an anthology of field notes compiled by Bates and others in the biology department, took students to Big Sur to study the ecology of the California coast.

Since then, professors of the biology department have been able to take students on one field class each semester.

“It is imperative that colleges support these courses. Call me a traditionalist, but I feel that enrichment courses like these are important to offer to the community,” Morris said.

The next field class, Biology 169, will be taught by Professors Kimo Morris and Daniela Bruckman in the fall semester. Students enrolled in the class will learn about the Sierra Nevada mountains and their natural history on a weekend camping trip.

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