Class on Top of a Sand Dune F.Y.R.E.S.: A first-year research course that takes you to Lake Michigan sand dunes each week.

Class on Top of a Sand Dune
“When I was younger, my family was at the dunes all the time. But I never really studied them. I’ve studied volcanoes and earthquakes and things like that, but never sand dunes. So this is cool.” —Nathaniel, Hudsonville, Mich.

Class on top of a sand dune

At Calvin, the liberal arts will prepare you for the world, giving you killer critical thinking skills and a wide knowledge base that will help you succeed in almost any profession. But consider this idea: taking Calvin’s “core” classes (our way of talking about general education courses) can actually make your mind and heart expand in all directions, filling you to the brim with wonder at the world God created.

Nowhere is this more true than when you are standing at the top of the tallest sand dune in P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, a 1,200-acre swath of land hugging the blue waters of Lake Michigan. You’ve just walked a mile along the lakeshore and climbed up and down several dunes to make it to the top of this enormous one. You’re tired, but in awe of everything around you: the sharp dune ridges, the forest of trees literally growing out of the yellow sand, and of course, the shimmering lake at the bottom of the entire scene.

But how does this have anything to do with the liberal arts, you ask?

It stands for “First Year Research in Earth Sciences,” a class you can take to fulfill one of Calvin’s core science requirements—even if you’re not planning to major in the sciences. Basically, it’s a class that allows you to spend time most weeks in the fall of your freshman year on these beautiful dunes learning to conduct research that will ultimately help protect a unique and fragile ecosystem.

Geography professor and dune expert Deanna van Dijk leads the class.

“I am convinced that anyone can do science,” she says. “You don’t have to have a passion for it; anyone can do it and even enjoy it.”

In other words, F.Y.R.E.S. is a class that gives you a map and a toolkit to take with you on your quest for truth and knowledge at Calvin.

A class for those who love the wild

Senior Katy Gerber has been involved with F.Y.R.E.S. since she was a first-year student, building research skills and making real contributions to the restoration of these dunes. For this biology and environmental studies double major, F.Y.R.E.S. was a way to get hands-on research experience as early as her first semester in college. She concedes that a lot of students register for the course because they love the outdoors.

“It’s really great being outside, and that’s what draws a lot of students (to the program). But I also really, really like the research—not being able to control anything (in the dune environment).”

Katy, now a program mentor, is a big fan of the wild and unpredictable quality of the dunes.

“‘The Dunes,’ as they are colloquially called, have somewhat of a mystical quality in their vast, untouched sandiness,” she writes in a blog post for the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

She has now spent three years trekking up the dunes to study their contours, the grasses that keep them intact and the way autumn storms move them farther and farther away from the lake.

Research that brings restoration

In her junior year, Katy led a group of first-year students as they studied land management efforts at Castle Park. Over the years, people enjoying the dunes at this lakeshore park have dislodged the plants and grasses that keep sand in place. As a result, the dunes are moving toward roads and homes. Katy’s group studied whether efforts to plant new grasses and build sand fences are stopping the migration.

They are.

“I’m excited about this and encouraged by the way that we, as humans, are able to bring hope and renewal to places we have hurt in the past,” she writes.

For Katy, this exercise has real impact on a world that is simultaneously broken and awe-inspiring.

“(This is) the largest freshwater dune system in the entire world. That’s a pretty incredible heritage which deserves attention and preservation.”

Be a discoverer

If you choose to apply for the course, you’ll do mind- and heart-expanding research work that can have a real impact on the world, Professor van Dijk says.

Every single person in this course is a discoverer. You will be asking and researching a question that has not been answered. It hasn’t been asked before.
—Prof. Deanna van Dijk


Want to be in the F.Y.R.E.S. program in your freshman year? Apply in the spring of your senior year of high school here.

VERGE: fall 2015

First-Year Experience