Learning Outdoors

Jeremy Shapiro

In many ways, outdoor learning at Grinnell College was already synonymous with celebrated biology professor Kenneth A. Christiansen

“Anything and everything was of interest to him, particularly his research outdoors,” says Anne Spence ’66, a former College Trustee and student of Christiansen’s. 

Anonymous donors to Grinnell College are honoring the memory of Christiansen with a gift of more than $750,000 for outdoor learning spaces adjacent to the new Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC). The learning areas are scheduled to be complete by June.

“The gift of outdoor learning spaces to memorialize Ken Christiansen is perfectly aligned with the teaching and learning focus of the HSSC and the environmental strategy of the College’s landscaping project,” says President Raynard S. Kington. “It is a fitting tribute to Ken’s distinguished teaching and research career at Grinnell, as well as his deeply valued relationships with students and colleagues.”  

In 1955, Christiansen began a storied career at Grinnell. His courses included general biology, zoology, evolution, ecology, sociobiology, invertebrate zoology, insect biology, parasitology, and marine biology. In 1962, he was named the Harry Waldo Norris Professor of Biology and in 1994 he became professor emeritus. Christiansen died in November 2017 at the age of 93.

“He was a biologist and a naturalist,” Spence says. “He could talk about birds, plants, insects, and animals. Along with Ben Graham [professor of biology, deceased], he helped find the spot for the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). Having outdoor and teaching spaces combined is absolutely perfect for him.”

The outdoor learning spaces will be built next to the HSSC South Pavilion, south of the plaza that runs between the HSSC and Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center. Classes regularly meeting inside the HSSC and Noyce will have the option of quickly relocating to outdoor spaces. 

Four outdoor learning areas will accommodate up to four classes at once. The spaces are designed with sound configurations in mind so that audible disruptions will be kept to a minimum. The raised seating and lowered adjoining areas create a cove effect with a walkway running between the coves. The spaces will be accessible and have technological capabilities, thanks to the installation of electrical utilities. 

The outdoor learning area is part of an overall landscaping plan that encompasses the new Admission and Student Financial Services center, as well as areas along Park Street and Mac Field. 

“The outdoor learning spaces perfectly intertwine teaching with our efforts to develop landscaping that provides a strong sense of place and adds to the beauty of our campus,” says Jaci A. Thiede, vice president of development and alumni relations. “It also ties in so well with Professor Christiansen’s passions and interests. We are grateful to the alumni and friends who are honoring him with their philanthropy and in doing so, helping his spirit and love of Grinnell’s learning opportunities benefit generations of Grinnellians in the years ahead.”

Diane Christiansen ’81 expressed the family’s appreciation for the importance and appropriateness of the memorial gift. “It means so much for others to acknowledge my father in a way that illuminates his deep love of the natural world,” she says.

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