The power of the pencil: PDC 991 Cross-Disciplinary State Park Study Away

Learning, connecting, informing, transforming, collaboration…all are buzzwords that describe this session of PDC (Planning, Development, and Construction) 991.

Learning, connecting, informing, transforming, collaboration…all are buzzwords that describe this session of PDC (Planning, Development, and Construction) 991. Masters, PhD, and upper division students with an interest in exploring design process and working in a collaborative environment with Michigan State Parks make up its core.

In PDC 991, students create their own syllabus, deciding what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how success will be measured, but first they have to come together as a group.

It always takes time getting a group to gel, and PDC 991 was no exception. We had seven students from five specialties: Janelle and Rob, environmental design; Joe and Eric, landscape architecture; Wenda, construction management; Meghan, anthropology; and I (Barbara), a tourism student. Compared to everyone else, Meghan and I just seemed "out there.”

The first 150-mile bus trip from the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing to the Ralph A. MacMullan (RAM) Center in Roscommon, Michigan, included more than 70 students from five SPDC classes participating in the two-day project retreat. We weren’t quite sure how we all fit together, or what it was we had agreed to do. It felt good to get off the bus and stretch after a long two-hour ride, and we shuffled along to drop our belongings off at the dorm-style cabins.

When lunchtime came, we sat with the people we “kind of” recognized, usually instructors and sponsors of the project. We knew only enough to give a polite smile to other group members. We donned our jackets and left on a tour of the property, to help get everyone in the same thought process. The cool Michigan breeze whispered through the pines, the gentle lap of Higgins Lake sang softly to us, yet we retained our distance and individuality.

When it was time for the brainstorming session, a large sheet of tracing paper appeared suddenly. Just as quickly, the designers and architects in the group sketched a comprehensive layout of the RAM center. Dr. Pat Crawford led this portion of the project, encouraging us to write what we knew on the map. Meghan, Wenda, and I hung back, unsure of our place in this exercise.

A simple statement from one of the landscape architecture students brought me into the project with full force. Joe held out a pencil to me and simply said, “Here. Hurry up. C’mon.”

It turns out that the “soft” sciences had quite a bit to add to the map. We included statements such as, “the majority of tourists participate in wildlife viewing,” “more people will take a walk on a boardwalk than on a dirt path,” and “this area (pointing on the map) feels very secluded and peaceful, like walking into a different place.”

I attribute the beginning of the strong bonds that eventually formed within our group to this exercise. We met on campus a short time later, enthusiastic about sharing not only our areas of specialty, but how our areas meshed with the others. We roughed in our recommendations and agreed to another trip north to pair theory with reality. We carpooled this time, and enjoyed lively conversation the whole time. Our conversations seemed to begin with, “Did you know…” instead of the polite nods of several weeks earlier.

We could not wait to share our knowledge and ideas with the other group members, and our enthusiasm only increased when we reached the RAM Center for our final visit. We had become a tightly knit, highly polished group. Moreover, it all began with a pencil, some tracing paper, and the invitation, “Here. Hurry up. C’mon.”


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