Trek | WRFI: Education should be an adventure | Trek Bikes
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Cycle the Rockies with WRFI

Learning is better with bikes

Visit any college classroom across the country, and you’ll find passionate students with inspirational stories and ambitions. Finding a classroom setting as inspiring as the students who occupy it can be more challenging.

The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI)—based in Missoula, Montana—confronts this disconnect head-on, bringing top students into the wilderness of the central Rocky Mountains to study topics ranging from Environmental Science to Philosophy. WRFI calls their courses “educational adventures,” and they offer both semester-long and summertime programs, all in the great outdoors.

This summer, Trek Bicycle partnered with WRFI in support of one of these educational adventures: Cycle the Rockies: Energy and Climate Change in Montana. The class is a crash course in the interactions between Montana’s energy economy, climate change, and the people whose lives are most affected by both. It’s also a 700-mile bike tour spanning the state’s wide array of landscapes and communities.

Six young women from around the United States rode this year’s route. This is a story of all that they learned: about diverse viewpoints, the joy of traveling by bicycle, and finding strength and comradery in each other and the beauty of the American West.

Engaging new perspectives

With landscapes ranging from sweeping high plains in the east to striking alpine environments in the west, most people know Montana for its natural beauty and namesake big skies. As the students on this year’s course learned first-hand, the passions and perspectives of those who live here are as diverse as the landscape itself. They spent time with coal miners whose families have long depended on energy extraction to get by, and spoke with leading climate scientists and environmental advocates in Glacier National Park, collecting a collage of perspectives on one of the most important issues of our time.

The students didn’t agree with many of the views they encountered while pedaling from small town to small town. But there’s something to be said for engaging with opposing viewpoints head-on. Hearing them firsthand, rather than from inside the bubble of a classroom, provides a deeper understanding of the human stories that influence the way we approach difficult issues like climate change. Emma, who is completing a degree at the University of Montana this year, experienced these benefits first-hand:

"While it has been a privilege to speak with individuals with whom I share common ideals and ethics, the real learning has come from interacting with those who have opposite viewpoints from my own. It is one thing to discuss how a coal mine functions and tarnishes the environment, but it is another to experience one firsthand.

I think I can speak for the group when I say all of us left with a new respect and understanding for coal miners…I am now more aware of just how important it is to show compassion and understanding towards those who may not have the same opportunities as me, as well as those who may have different values than me.”

You can read someone’s story in a textbook, but you can’t see the worry in their eyes as they share fears of losing the mining job they’ve always had or discuss watching the glaciers they’ve spent years researching melt away in front of them. By providing students the opportunities to hear so many different stories, Cycle the Rockies offers a type of real-world exposure that is unparalleled in traditional learning environments.

Finding flow

Finding time for reflection comes naturally when traveling by bike. The pace of most rides strikes a balance that allows you to cover lots of ground without missing a moment of scenery, and anyone who’s ridden can relate to the mental state of “flow”—or deep, uninterrupted focus—that occurs while turning the pedals over and over.

Riding provides a great thinking space because it requires enough attention to distract from the endless list of tasks and anxieties that run through our heads, while still leaving enough space up there for deep consideration of a single idea. The simple joys of the wind on your face and the sun on your legs don’t hurt one’s emotional state either.

Stress relief and increased mental clarity are benefits of riding that anyone can appreciate. But when you’re a college student wrestling with complicated subject matter in an entirely new environment—with the pressure of preparing for the future constantly weighing down on you—finding time for reflection is especially important. No doubt, learning is better with bikes.

Take it from Morgan, a rising junior at the University of Oregon who discovered the pace of riding was perfect for discovering new perspectives, both her own and of others:

"This trip changes how the brain works. The constant cycling, waking up with the sun, and shifting worries from career and grades to effective Shotblock rationing and how best to care for extreme heat rash has left me a lot of time for reflection. Over the last 9 or so days, I’ve tried to spend time thinking about the type of journalist I want to be, and less about the type of career I need to have. I’ve become less future-oriented. I’ve stopped monitoring every move for maximal hiring potential. Instead, I’m finding myself living minute to minute. And I’m enjoying it.

This trip is a lesson in view finding. When everyone else seems to be flocking to a shiny gadget or app, I’ll be taking a detour off the major highway and onto a dirt road far from a Starbucks or Apple store, with shorter lines and quieter alleys."

If the purpose of higher education is to inspire critical thinking and shift perspectives, it’s clear that the disruption of routine that WRFI’s courses provide is an incredibly effective way of doing so. Cycle the Rockies is a course focused on energy and climate change, but it’s also a chance to break routines and shift expectations of oneself.

Conquering false summits

Throughout the course, students submitted blogs documenting their experiences. As part of the process, they shared them aloud with the group before submission. The themes of these blog entries varied, but one thing rang true throughout: pushing themselves mentally and physically, the group turned to one another for inspiration when the climbs got tough or they encountered unwelcome advances like this one shared by Mia, a student at the University of Montana:

“This is gonna sound cocky, but could I spray you gals down with my hose?” The man looked at us expectantly. He waited awkwardly to be rewarded for his seemingly clever joke, and was met with silence. This had become a frequent occurrence for our all-female student group. Belittling questions like, “who changes your tires?” or decorative posters titled, “12 Reasons Why a Handgun is Better Than a Woman” can be discouraging.

A false summit is a peak that appears to be the pinnacle of a mountain but upon arrival it becomes apparent that the real summit remains higher. This is what the man’s degrading comment feels like. Just when I thought I’d catch a break, or receive encouragement, or the reward of a nice downhill glide after a long strenuous uphill climb, we’re instead hit with comments on the tightness of our chamois, and encouraged to “lighten up” or “smile” when we fail to laugh at degrading jokes that are at our expense. So, the climb continues, the work continues, the disappointment continues. But the strength and grace of the women with me on this course doesn’t just continue. It expands, and it’s contagious.

I pick my head up any time I feel discouraged and stare at the persistent push of the cyclists in front of me. They press on, therefore so do I."

Cycling and academics are often thought of as individual pursuits, full of challenges to be conquered with personal will-power and inner strength. But both learning and riding are better when enjoyed in the company of others. Listening to students share deeply personal experiences in an incredibly casual environment—where stories of lost loved ones or confronting misogyny on the road came just minutes after off-color bathroom jokes and awkward digs at the course’s instructors—it was clear that WRFI’s take on the classroom encourages students to build deep, meaningful bonds in a relatively short period of time.

From breathtaking course locations, engaging academics, and a diverse and dedicated staff, there are many things that set WRFI’s educational adventures apart from other classrooms. But it’s the memories of climbs conquered, stories shared, and lifelong friends made that really set WRFI apart from your typical college course. Out in the wild, strangers turn to family quickly.

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