Down to Earth

Students discover IC's living classroom, more than 500 acres of natural lands dedicated to the study of conservation, biology, environmental sciences, outdoor adventure, and recreation. 

Growing up in an urban environment, Andreas Jonathan ’14 had never been camping or hiking. But during his first year at Ithaca College, he ended up in the woods at night, blindfolded, finding his way back to campus just by using his sense of hearing.

“It made me think about my natural place in the world,” Jonathan said.

It was all part of the Environmental Sentinels course, an innovative, hands-on learning experience in which students use wilderness awareness and survival skills to learn about local natural history and ecology.

“The purpose was to discover what you’re trying to save,” said Jonathan, who started his college career as an environmental studies major before switching to architectural studies.

“Andreas was apprehensive about the prospect of four-hour stints in all kinds of weather in our outdoor classrooms in the [Ithaca College] Natural Lands,” said Jake Brenner, assistant professor of environmental studies and faculty manager of the IC Natural Lands. “But he dove right in, approaching his field work with enthusiasm and an open mind.”

Watch an interview with Professor Jake Brenner: 

Today, Jonathan is attending the University of Pennsylvania’s master of landscape architecture program, which combines his passion for the environment and architecture.

“I cannot help but wonder what effect those long days in the woods had on Andreas’s current academic work and his future career,” Brenner said.

Jonathan’s story is just one example of how the Ithaca College Natural Lands, which marked their 10th anniversary this year, have made an impact on thousands of IC students. But some students, and many alumni, may not even know the natural lands exist—or where they are located. Part of the land is known as the blue and gold trails, but they are only a small portion of what constitutes the natural lands.

The IC Natural Lands comprise 560 acres of undeveloped land, most of which is adjacent to campus. South Hill Natural Area East is the largest of the ICNL reserves with 365 acres, which is the closest to IC’s main campus and is the most heavily used. Across Danby Road from the college, the 67 acres of South Hill Natural Area West have come under recent management for teaching, research, and recreation. There are also 128 acres of undeveloped land in Newfield. Part of the 128 acres is a natural resource reserve and the rest is the Bob Robinson Family Preserve, given to IC in the 1970s on the condition that its rare and valuable habitats be preserved.

Watch a time lapse video of life in the Natural Lands and read about the research that inspired it.


In the last decade, the lands have been used for countless college courses, many of which break down the silos between disciplines and encourage hands-on learning, alternative learning, and civic engagement, all key elements of IC 20/20, the college’s strategic plan.

A committee was established to serve as a steward of the land and identify the best ways to use and protect the land in the future. Five members have formal positions, including a faculty manager, the associate vice president of facilities, an ecological consultant, an education coordinator, and a student intern. The committee’s recommendations will be considered in the creation of a new campus master plan.