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Lipscomb Department of Biology uses the great outdoors as classroom

Each semester, students in Ecology spend two nights in the Great Smoky Mountains for an immersive learning experience

Cate Zenzen  | 

Ecology Class Photo

John Lewis, associate professor of biology, encourages his students to learn by getting their hands dirty. An organismal biologist with a background in wildlife science, Lewis led the Great Smoky Mountains Ecology trip this fall -- a bi-annual camping trip as part of the curriculum for Ecology. The class is a senior-level course required for all biology majors and open to students studying sustainability. 

Originating over 30 years ago, the trip is characterized by tradition. With two nights at a campsite in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, days are spent hiking different trails at different elevations to compare the forest composition in each location. Through the years, the Department faculty have developed a schedule that features their favorite trails and locations for learning and community, including a stop at Golden Corral Buffet and Grill as a Friday-night treat. 

The Department of Biology at Lipscomb University often takes students off campus for labs and immersive lessons. Lewis said he likes to bring his classes to nearby Metro parks and state natural areas to see and feel the concepts at work. 

"Experiential learning has a really high value. Reading is a lot different than walking through a forest and actually measuring the trees and feeling the difference in moisture as you go up in elevation. I think that part is invaluable, that you get to see and touch it,” said Lewis. 

With meals and equipment provided by the Department, students were free to enjoy spending time outside and with each other. While students always enjoy destinations such as Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, and Laurel Falls, Lewis said the highlights of the trip are usually at night around the campfire. As graduation looms in the future, this may be the last time the seniors are all together.

"Mentoring is really important in our department and we try to be like a big family. Typically those conversations around the campfire, when all of the students are gathered around, turn into discussions about life after graduation. We remind them that God has a plan and knows what their path is, it’s rewarding as a member of faculty to be part of that,” said Lewis.

With the days full of hiking, data collection and field observations, evenings were spent in community. Lewis said some students were skeptical about the trip, some had never been camping before, but by the end everyone enjoyed themselves.

"I think they all appreciated the time around the campfire. That’s something about humans in general I think. If there’s a campfire, people are going to gather around it and start talking.”

Lipscomb offers undergraduate degrees in applied biochemistry (B.A. or B.S. with optional pharmacy emphasis), biochemistry (B.A. or B.S.), biology (B.A. or B.S. with optional pharmacy emphasis), bioscience and philosophy (B.S.), molecular biology (B.A. or B.S.) and biomedical physics (B.S.). Graduate-level degrees include a Master of Science in biomolecular science.

For more information about Lipscomb’s Department of Biology, visit