It’s no secret that taking time to unplug from the modern world and get closer to nature can have a profound effect on your well-being.
But what effect can this practice have on stressed-out college students? And how can you convince them to make time for this in a world that already makes incredible demands on their time and energy?
Well, according to a team of Trinity University professors researching this exact topic, you simply give them credit for it.
“At Trinity, you learn by doing,” says education professor Laura Allen, Ph.D. “So we wanted to start a class that takes students outside into natural spaces. You can’t just tell college students, ‘You need to go outside more.’ It stresses them out if you don’t also give them the time. This needed to be a course.”
Welcome to “The Natural Environment and Well-Being” (ENVI/EDUC 3310), an award-winning course and research project all in one. This course is led by an interdisciplinary team of Allen; associate education professor Courtney Lambert-Crim ’93, M’94, Ed.D.; associate education professor Ellen Barnett, Ph.D.; associate sociology professor Benjamin Sosnaud, Ph.D.; and biology professor Jonathan King, Ph.D. The faculty members bring together the fields of education, biology, and sociology to examine nature’s effect on the well-being of college students.
Professors (L-R) Courtney Lambert-Crim, Laura Allen, Benjamin Sosnaud, Ellen Barnett, and Jonathan King turned this class into an interdisciplinary experience spanning STEM and the social sciences.
Wondering why the course is so innovative? Or how its unique structure affects student well-being, and what the team’s interdisciplinary research is already showing? Like a shady tree on a hot summer day, we’ve got you covered.
During all the chaos and social disconnect of 2020, Allen and Crim wanted to find a way to make an impact on student well-being and decided to become certified forest therapy guides.
Forest therapy aims to improve immune function, cardiovascular and respiratory health, and reduce stress and depression, among other health benefits, according to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, an international education company from which Allen and Crim decided to pursue their certification. Think of it sort of like guided meditation, just out in the woods.
While the duo wanted to find a way to bring forest therapy and its benefits to Trinity undergrads—while also researching these effects—they realized they needed a course in place to complement the research. And, as Allen and Crim recall, they were shocked to realize that no one else in the nation had installed a course like this at the undergraduate level.
“I think this type of course could have existed at Trinity 10 or 15 years ago, but I think the need for it has also shifted during that time,“ Crim says. “Student [concerns] today have become much more focused on their emotional well-being.”
So, over the past three years, this faculty team has been hard at work building up “The Natural Environment and Well-Being,” along with the research project that accompanies it. The 30-person class is currently three credit hours (with no prerequisites) that satisfies environmental studies, education, and two general education requirements. Students attend a three-hour block on Wednesday afternoons, with at least 50% of class time dedicated to nature on and off campus. This includes one full-day field trip.
As students are immersed in nature, the faculty are studying biological and psychological data gathered from this group of undergrads. This data takes the form of biometric measures, educational performance, and sociological patterns and effects.
“Nature,” Allen says, “is our lab.”
Beyond the data, Allen and Crim say their students take home valuable lessons about one of the most complicated subjects a college student can study: themselves.
“In this course, you’re going to be able to really figure out how your connection with the outdoors and with nature can best benefit you,” Crim says. “Whether we’re talking about self-regulation, stress management, or overall well-being, this course gives you skills that you can choose to take forward with you, whether you end up working on Wall Street or somewhere less hectic.”
A Fresh Mix
For some students, simply embracing the value of nature is itself a challenge, Crim says. And that couldn’t be more perfect for the team’s research: The group tries to admit students from as many different academic and personal backgrounds as possible.
“In fact, we typically have at least one student that leaves the class and still doesn’t believe any of it. And that’s fine. We want different disciplines—engineers, computer scientists, people that normally wouldn’t take this type of a class,” Crim explains.
Diverse beliefs, well-rounded experiences: Sounds like the draw of a university like Trinity, where converging viewpoints and perspectives are constantly creating new bridges between disciplines and academic interests.
In fact, just about the only thing that initially linked these students was that they were each feeling the pressures of college life.
Munoz, a student-athlete from Cedar Park who balances school and football at Trinity, started out as a stressed-out engineering science major before switching to economics. “I wasn’t really
sure what to expect from this course,” Munoz says. “And what surprised me was that this class wasn’t just about hanging out outside. You’re actually learning about the benefits of being in nature.”
Munoz, Jones, and Vargas have had the chance to take advantage of Trinity’s lush, green campus as well as local San Antonio parks, like Brackenridge and Hardberger, while also taking longer day trips to settings like Guadalupe River State Park.
For students like Aaliyah Jones ‘26, personal reflections are a crucial part of the class experience.
Jones, an aspiring corporate lawyer from Houston on Trinity’s pre-law track, says these day trips aren’t what people may expect.
“We’re not doing anything weird, which I feel like people may think, like going outside and hugging trees,” she laughs. “I think the best way to put it is we’re figuring out our own relationships with nature.”
Jones, Munoz, and Vargas have each especially enjoyed the course’s homework assignments: sit-spot reflections.
“Each week we spend at least 30 minutes outside of class by ourselves, not contacting anybody else, not on our phones, just in nature,” Munoz says. “You actually get to sit down and enjoy and take in your surroundings versus just being there in passing.”
However, it took some time for Munoz to notice the effects of spending more time outdoors. “I’ve struggled to get accustomed to it, but this week it really started feeling a bit more like, ‘Oh, this is beneficial.’ I went to do my sit spot, I came back home, knocked out a bunch of homework, and I felt nice and refreshed.”
For Vargas, a business school student from San Antonio who’s in the middle of a tough process of searching for internships, this course has had an impact that stretches beyond the curriculum. “I’m stressed about a lot of stuff going on with school,” Vargas says, “but I’ve also dealt with some [personal things] that have impacted my mental health over the years.
“I was skeptical of this course,” Vargas continues, “just because it seemed a little different compared to most courses here at Trinity, but I thought it would be perfect for me because I have a lot of stress.”
A crucial step that concludes a guided forest therapy walk is a Tea Ceremony. From the plants used to make the tea, each student and professor takes a symbolic bit of nature home with them. Each participant in the ceremony gets the chance to express themselves in turn.
A Big Result
So, the big question: Does being out in nature have a demonstrable effect on the well-being of students in the class?
The short answer, according to the faculty research team, is yes. The long answer is also yes, just sprinkled with some complicated math.
The team’s primary metric of study is a term called “rumination”: a psychological process of negative or repetitive thinking that contributes to poor mental health, and one that is linked directly to anxiety and depression. Students in the class regularly submit reflections and questionnaires, rating various aspects of their emotional, psychological, and social well-being, with results ranging from languishing to flourishing. There is also biological data gathered, such as heart-rate variability.
The team has built up some “fairly large” sample sizes, says sociology’s Benjamin Sosnaud, which “actually show some amazing results.”
Students in the “Natural Environment and Well-Being” course display “significant reductions in rumination scores, and further analysis shows a small improvement in measures of psychological well-being,” Sosnaud says. “That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that a college semester typically gets more intense as it progresses. But rumination scores among students in the course actually went down throughout the semester.”
Sosnaud cautions, however: “This is not a magic bullet, where you just go outside and you’re suddenly happy. But at the same time, there’s a pretty robust set of biological pathways that show how being in a natural environment can be good for your brain and be good for your cognition.”
The faculty team, which has already presented their research internationally, has wide-reaching aspirations for this course model.
Allen, Crim, and Sosnaud all say they’d like to see the course expanded into multiple sections, as the class currently has a rapidly-growing waitlist ratio. The course could also possibly be implemented as a First-Year Experience course, which make a greater impact on younger students right off the bat.
And they want to see Trinity continue to be known as a thought leader around student well-being, helping other schools around the world replicate this course.
“We’ve had more than 70 downloads of our curriculum worldwide,” Allen says.
And the course has even started garnering media attention: The group received a San Antonio Light award for their work with students, nature, and well-being this fall.
Beyond the data and the metrics, Crim says, the course’s popularity among students is perhaps its strongest indicator of success.
“Students have made some powerful statements,” she says. “I’ve read, ‘This is the first class I’ve ever taken at Trinity that was about learning about me.’ Another said, ‘This is the class I’ve
always needed, although I didn’t know I needed it.’”
Sierra Vargas ‘24 says she was skeptical of the course at first, but has found it a perfect way to address the stresses of college life
Jones and Vargas are already echoing this sentiment.
“I think, so far, the course has helped a little bit. I still feel anxiety and things like that,” Vargas says. “But what’s actually surprising is how much I don’t think. I’ve always had my mind in a million different places all at once. But while I’m out there in nature, my mind is just very at peace. This is a time for my mind to settle down.”
Surrounded by the trees, green leaves, and sounding animals, Jones says the course has helped its students step forward towards healthier lives, as she reflects on her own personal development:
“I feel like ‘Aaliyah today’ is way more focused on growing herself,” Jones says of her personal journey. “I feel like I’ve taken steps in self-growth that were courageous that I feel like ‘Aaliyah a few months ago’ would have been too afraid to take. That’s a big deal for me.”