When Hillsdale College biology students swap laboratories and classrooms for their annual lakeside retreat, they trek through the woods on a botany hike, burn methane, and canoe for hours on a river.
“Whether it’s lighting swamp gas…the s’mores, the canoe trips, the meals that we share together, even the ride up and back — the trip heightens camaraderie among students of different levels and [between] students and faculty,” Associate Professor of Biology Jeffrey VanZant said in an email. “The whole weekend is fantastic.”
About 25 science students and seven biology faculty members attended the biology retreat Saturday and Sunday, which was held more than three hours away at the college’s G.H. Gordon Biological Station near Rockwell Lake in Luther, Michigan. The retreat has been an annual tradition since about 2009, according to Professor of Biology David Houghton.
“It’s an opportunity to celebrate with biology major friends, spend time with professors, and mentor freshmen,” said senior Andrea Wallace, who has gone on the retreat since her first semester at Hillsdale. “It’s cool to be with like-minded people who appreciate your work.”
Assistant Professor of Biology Silas Johnson, who organized the retreat, said it’s a good opportunity for students and faculty to enjoy the biology station, which otherwise is used only for summer classes and student research projects.
The biology department pays for the retreat, Johnson said, so students go for free. No one has to apply to go, and the retreat is open to biology, chemistry, and biochemistry majors as well as students in the 100-level science courses.
The range of ages among students and professors cultivates a unique opportunity for bonding in the department, Houghton said.
“It’s a chance for the freshmen to meet the faculty and the upperclassmen,” Houghton said in an email. “And it’s a good opportunity for all of us to relax and enjoy our magnificent biostation on one of the last nice weekends of a Michigan autumn.”
Several traditions make the retreat memorable, Wallace said: a botany hike led by Professor of Biology Ranessa Cooper, a two-hour canoe ride along the Manistee River, and two seniors taking a methane-trapping contraption into the lake at night to capture the gas and light it on fire.
Professor of Biology Francis Steiner also plays guitar around the campfire, Wallace said, even playing songs he wrote himself.
“It really is a community-building thing,” said senior Madison Frame, who went on the retreat for the third time this year. “Having this experience where you’re outdoors having fun in nature creates this camaraderie on a deeper level than you find in the classroom.”