Two students in Alaska walking with a mountain in the background

When Drs. JoEllen Pederson and Phillip Poplin first took students to the Last Frontier on their Alaska Brock Experience, a long drive awaited them after a long flight: the seemingly endless Dalton Highway north to Prudhoe Bay.

“So much of that course was spent driving through the tundra,” said Pederson, associate professor of sociology, who leads the course. “We wanted to optimize students’ hands-on experience with civic issues by increasing time spent in communities and public lands.”

Pederson and Poplin, a professor of mathematics, originally led the Alaska Brock Experience in 2017.

We wanted to optimize students’ hands-on experience with civic issues by increasing time spent in communities and public lands.

Dr. JoEllen Pederson, associate professor of sociology Tweet This

Brock Experiences are unique Longwood courses that take students to an American place where students study in-depth an unresolved issue. In Alaska, students will explore how some of the most valuable and rare natural resources in the country are protected and accessed.

Pederson and Poplin were selected as Brock Faculty Fellows to redesign the course in spring 2020, but, like many aspects of the university, the process was upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Delayed by a year and without the usual year to travel to the site and plan in place, the pair had to rely on their years of experience traveling to Alaska to redesign the course.

“Students go into open spaces that are untouched by humans, and we want them to get a variety of experiences in the days we are in Alaska. So we designed the course to really maximize what they are able to study,” said Pederson. “Public lands really are for everyone. If you’re into hunting, great—there’s something for you. If you’re into hiking, great—there’s something for you. If you’re into panning for gold, great—there’s something for you. We are going to look at as many aspects of the natural resource landscape in Alaska as possible.”

During their time in Alaska, students will meet with and learn from native Alaskans, park service employees, wildlife fish and game managers, jewelers and even chefs—all of whom have unique perspectives on natural resources.

“Most people are unaware that Alaska has dozens of varieties of gemstones that are being mined by both big companies and small, one-person operations,” said Poplin. “Alaska is full of surprises that students get to explore and reflect on as they go through this course. It’s very exciting and rewarding to watch them understand these great complexities throughout the course.”

“It’s all about balance,” he said. “There are questions that are being asked every day: Who has access to valuable salmon fishing grounds? Who is able to hunt game? Who can mine for precious gemstones on public lands? What rights do oil companies have vs. indigenous Alaskans? We are going to explore all of these issues so students come away with a much deeper understanding of the forces at play in Alaska, which even in 2021 is still the last frontier.”

The redesigned Alaska Brock Experience will launch its first course in summer 2022. Faculty expect to fill between 10-15 spaces for the two-week excursion.

Registration will open in fall 2021.

The Alaska Brock Experience has been an integral part of the lineup of courses for the past six years. As the first Experience developed after the highly successful Yellowstone course model, it took students to the northernmost point of the United States to explore issues of natural resource management in real time.

To learn more about Brock Experiences, including how to register for one, please email Director of Brock Experiences Josh Blakely at

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