Huskies Follow the Research Trail to Explore the Psychology of Nature

A young woman with a backpack and her back to us carries her snow boots and water on a trail back to a nature psychology exploration in a wilderness park.
A young woman with a backpack and her back to us carries her snow boots and water on a trail back to a nature psychology exploration in a wilderness park.
One student hugs a tree and the others look around in a snowy wilderness forest as they explore the psychology of nature.
Students in the new nature psychology course capped off spring semester by putting what they learned into practice at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

A new course in nature psychology at Michigan Tech immerses students in real-life research on the cognitive benefits of getting outside.

Psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve mental health and sharpen cognition. From a stroll through a city park to a day spent hiking in the wilderness, exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, improved immune system, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation. 

Michigan Technological University's Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences (CLS) blended these wellness findings with the area's abundance of outdoor activities and endless beauty into a new course: Nature Psychology. Developed by Assistant Professor Samantha Smith, with noteworthy contributions from several MTU faculty, Nature Psychology uses an interdisciplinary, experience-based approach to help students explore how mental function is connected to the natural environment. 

The course also features an impactful service-learning component. In collaboration with Jill Fisher, program manager at Keweenaw Land Trust (KLT), students designed a pamphlet available at KLT trailheads and around the community that explains how spending time in nature is good for mental health, physical health and cognitive performance. The class also created a family-oriented activity with the aim to encourage more people to explore KLT-protected lands and the great outdoors in general.

A line of students clowns around in front of a log cabin in the snow during a nature immersion in Upper Michigan.
Research isn't all fun and games — but it definitely had its lighthearted moments during the class nature retreat in the western Upper Peninsula's Porcupine Mountains — aka the Porkies.

The 2022 course culminated in a weekend nature retreat in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where students directly experienced and reflected on the concepts they discussed throughout the semester. The retreat, facilitated by Smith and geosciences research scientist Erika Vye of MTU's Great Lakes Research Center, included hiking, outdoor cooking, nature-themed discussions and crafts, and time for interpersonal connection and reflection.

Complementary Research and Curriculum Development

A tree with pine needles glows in a forest light.
Faculty across campus provided students with interdisciplinary perspectives, from how we define nature to how our bodies respond to it. 

In addition to traditional psychology themes, like the impact of spending time in nature on cognitive performance and mental health, the new course introduced students to other perspectives on the human-nature connection. Brigitte Morin, biological sciences senior lecturer, illuminated the human body’s physiological response to spending mindful time in the natural world. Mark Rhodes, assistant professor of geography, led students on an exploration of human geography, political ecology and what the word nature really means. Chelsea Schelly, associate professor of sociology, engaged students in an examination of environmentally responsible behaviors and our interdependent relationship with the biophysical world from a sociological lens. Lisa Gordillo, associate professor of visual and performing arts, spoke to how artwork that intersects with ecology creates community engagement and conversations about environmental justice and human rights. Vye introduced students to the importance of varied personal values for geologic features, the wide-ranging connections people have with landscape, and the value of geoheritage as a geoscience communication tool that nurtures our sense of place. R.J. Laverne, adjunct associate professor in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, shared his expertise on urban forestry and the consequences of becoming too disconnected from the natural world we evolved to thrive in.

A Course with Lifetime Takeaways

two students smile in the sun painting rocks in a cabin during a nature retreat.
The students' end-of-semester nature retreat was replete with scenery and smiles captured in these images by psychology major and student photographer Hannah DeRuyter.

Students gained a greater understanding of how nature impacts human psychology and physiology. They learned how an understanding of psychology and the human-nature connection can be used to promote positive social and environmental outcomes. They also discovered ways to engage in environmental stewardship and help others become more environmentally responsible citizens of Earth.  

More Courses and Opportunities Await

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Nature Psychology will be offered again in the spring 2024 semester. But students don’t need to wait until then for courses that offer real experiences and unique opportunities. Environmental Psychology, available in spring 2023, takes students outside the classroom to observe psychological principles and practices at play in real-world settings. For example, students will conduct a walkability survey of Houghton and a scavenger hunt at Michigan Tech’s A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum to explore the design of educational environments.

And every fall semester, during the Upper Peninsula’s famous color season, the department organizes a “Psych Hike” on one of the area’s beautiful trails. Everyone is welcome to calm the mind, move the body and enjoy time together in nature.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.