Anthropology 101: How to Change the World

Professor Tom Murphy wanted his students to reconnect with nature. Now, they work beside farmers, fishermen, wastewater technicians, environmental groups, and Native American leaders through an award-winning service learning program. This is Tom's story.


In the Learn-n-Serve Environmental Anthropology Field School (LEAF), at Edmonds Community College, Washington, we study a little-known society: our own. We combine participant observation, the primary method of investigation for cultural anthropologists, with service-learning to engage the students in the community while working with tribes, governments, community organizations, cooperatives, and farms to improve sustainability. Every Friday, or every day of the week in summer, I meet my students for a full day outdoors. Most field schools study a foreign culture, but LEAF reconnects its students with nature and the complex systems of our own society.

We ask basic questions: Where does our water or food come from? Who are our neighbors—especially plants and animals? Outdoor service is a rich learning environment for finding the complex answers. As we help the Stillaguamish Tribe document Coho salmon escapement, my students learn about tribal fishing rights and the Puget Sound ecosystem. They practice scientific methodology and marine zoology, surveying juvenile Dungeness crab habitat for the local Marine Resources Committee. When we take water samples from an urban stream, they learn about the effect of their own pet wastes and lawn maintenance. While helping a landowner restore the riparian zone near a water source, students learn to identify native species while planting them and invasive species while removing them.

EAF School Project with Adopt-A-Stream Foundation at Cedarland Family Farm.LEAF School Project with Adopt-A-Stream Foundation at Cedarland Family Farm.

It can be challenging to teach young people about the huge problems facing our ecosystems and societies. In one exercise, my students research the effect that one piece of their stuff has on the environment—and some feel overwhelmed. However, I see joy on their faces as we help restore habitat or meet the leaders of a self-supporting food bank that dignifies it clients. My students learn that we have lots of problems—but at the same time, every project in which they participate is part of a solution. Service-learning is the key to giving our students hope. Meeting the people who have chosen this work as a career inspires them, and expands their ideas of what’s possible in their future careers.

We spend several classes in the forest, identifying plants with field guides, following animal tracks, and listening to bird songs while collecting data for land managers. Why do I teach this small, specific information? Because it creates relationships. When you learn the name of a plant, it’s like learning the name of a person. After you protect or plant a certain species, you harbor good memories towards it and recognize it as a friend. You begin to care about it, and wonder if the other, unknown plants have names, too.

Is this anthropomorphizing? Perhaps, but it’s also how humans have always learned: by forming relationships and telling stories about the world. Coyotes, for instance, are wise trickster characters in many Native American stories. Most of us today don’t realize that coyotes live all around us, even in cities. Once you hear the Coyote stories, recognize their tracks and see their pictures on our wildlife cameras; you start to care about what’s going on with coyotes. You must begin by learning the names, because without that, you can’t have a relationship.

A former student wrote about how learning the names of native trees changed her attitude towards her new home:

“Until this quarter, I had felt like I lived in a confined, wet blur of green and grey. Now, I am familiar with what is around me, and I want to take care of all of it. The plants around me have names and I know how to use them. They have become important enough to me, through this class, that I care about what happens to them and whether or not they continue to exist.”—Victoria Quezada

Another student wrote about the community awareness she found from local relationships, built through the service learning experiences:

“To physically go out and restore the riparian zone along rivers with a group of great people is a feeling of fulfillment that is difficult to describe. To experience a town meeting and hear the real passion and concerns voiced by the community living there drew me closer to Edmonds. To join a group of people that care and are involved in a bettering the world we live in with action and physical labor was more than a wonderful experience; it is something I will never forget.”—Jacklyn Wardlow

In the words of another anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.” Service learning at the LEAF School introduces my students to other committed citizens, and gives them reasons to care. They give each other hope and begin to believe that we can change the world.


5 LEAF Tips to Nibble On—Tom Murphy’s Advice on Service-Learning

  1. Become Involved
    The most important thing teachers can do is volunteer themselves in the community. Use the connections to create service learning for your students. Pay attention to your community, and read the local newspaper.
  2. Go to the Source
    We all drink water, and we all eat food, so visiting the sources of these resources is guaranteed to be a relevant experience. After touring a Cedar River dam, which supplies all of the Seattle area’s drinking water, one of my students wrote, “I never honestly looked at water use as problem before. It all hits home when you are standing there and you see firsthand, the history and the people that work so hard to keep our water clean and safe.” Most of my students have never seen a farm, so we volunteer at organic farms. Just realizing that someone grows your food is so important.
  3. Learn Specifics
    Having a relationship with a species or an ecosystem increases your will to care for it. You can’t have a relationship without knowing someone’s name – so learn the names, stories, and uses of the plants, birds, mammals, insects and fish living around you.
  4. Introduce NGO Heroes
    Non-governmental organizations bring together the people who are committed to a cause and making real contributions to our community. Don’t miss the chance to work with them. Meeting these people gives students realistic hope, and ideas of what’s possible in their future career.
  5. Reflect
    Reflections helps students connect the dots between their experience and larger issues in ecology. Group conversations are helpful, but individual reflection, especially in writing, is most important for turning service into learning.

Tom Murphy, PhD, is a professor of anthropology at Edmonds Community College, in Edmonds, Washington. He taught Anthropology and American Indian Studies, including projects in ethnobiology, at the University of Washington before founding the LEAF School in the spring of 2006. After years of exploring waste water impacts, he can honestly say that class visits to a sewage treatment plant can be a moving experience.


Learn more about the LEAF School and training opportunities for K-12 teachers at .

This article was edited by Kristen Ballinger from an interview with Tom Murphy.

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