Students stand around a camp fire

Fostering Interprofessional Collaboration in Nature's Classroom

Gao Vang

The Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience is a transformative educational initiative that transcends traditional classroom boundaries. Since its inception two years ago, the experience has emerged as a beacon of interprofessional collaboration and immersive learning. Over the past academic year, 38 eager learners delved into the intricacies of ecohealth, forging connections with nature and each other.

Ecohealth, a holistic approach to understanding the intricate connections between human, animal, and environmental health, serves as the cornerstone of this unique program. Rooted in the belief that health is intimately linked to the health of our planet, the Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience offers participants a hands-on opportunity to explore these interconnected systems in a real-world setting.

“Sometimes in the classroom, concepts can feel theoretical, whereas when you get to go out and be in nature and see a raptor right in front of you, it helps to ground you within that experience and develop greater empathy,” said Roni Lafky, an interprofessional experiential engagement specialist in the Center for Interprofessional Health, who co-leads the program. “Being in nature is good for our health, and it’s good for students to be able to take a break from their studies and immerse themselves in their surroundings.” 

The Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience, nestled within the serene landscapes of Itasca State Park, offers students a unique opportunity to be immersed in the rich biodiversity of the region. Surrounded by towering pines, pristine lakes, and abundant wildlife, learners are encouraged to engage with nature in a profound and meaningful way. 

”The experience helps students connect to nature, which helps them connect to themselves to check in on stress levels and better connect to one another,” said Justine Mishek, MHA, a senior lecturer in the School of Public Health's Division of Health Policy & Management who co-leads the program.

Fall Series: Embracing Nature and Cultivating Relationships

For medical student Molly Gardner who participated in the fall and spring series, this program has been a transformative journey, filled with moments of connection, reflection, and personal growth.

"The Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience has truly been a highlight of my academic journey," said Gardner. "It has allowed me to connect with nature, forge lifelong friendships, and gain a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of health and the environment. I am immensely grateful for the memories and lessons learned during my time at Itasca, and I eagerly look forward to future opportunities for exploration and growth."

Central to the success of the program is its emphasis on interprofessional collaboration. Participants hail from diverse academic backgrounds, including medicine, nursing, public health, environmental science, and beyond. Through collaborative projects and discussions, learners gain a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between human health and the environment. By bringing together individuals with varied perspectives and expertise, the Itasca Ecohealth Experience fosters innovative solutions to pressing global health challenges.

Students stand on a log bridge over a river

"I chose to participate in this experience to build cross-campus and professional relationships with other students at the University," Gardner reflects. "I especially enjoyed being able to hear about the coursework and subject areas of other professional students that I know I will work with quite closely in the future as an MD. I also was so excited with the opportunity to stay at a cabin in the woods at Itasca for a weekend.”

The fall series was one of the biggest yet, with 17 students participating. The weekend included guided hikes and activities such as canoeing, paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, bird watching, and more.

"I think the key takeaways I have had from my two experiences at the Ecohealth program was the importance of slowing down and having conversations with those around me," Gardner notes. "Each morning at breakfast or while we were hiking was a great opportunity to just chat and not be constantly thinking about school and work. I also loved the opportunity to slow down in a community of students, because we all understand the busy lives each of us leads at school and yet were able to goof around and paddle or hike in the woods for a little bit."

Winter Series: Building Connections and Engaging with Experts

The Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience is not just about acquiring knowledge, it's about forging lasting connections with peers and mentors alike. Participants engage in team-building activities, group reflections, and shared meals, creating a supportive community that extends far beyond the duration of the program. These relationships serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement long after participants return to their respective institutions.

The executive director of the Raptor Center, Victoria Hall, DVM, joined the winter series, along with two naturalists. They brought three raptors that the learners had a chance to interact with. They also developed a public program to share with the community on lead and environmental impacts, as well as the intersections between hunting and different animals and human health. Students learned about systems mapping and stakeholder engagement.

Group of learners with raptors

"The grand challenges of the world will not be solved by one health sector alone, and require the interdisciplinary efforts of collaboration across health sciences to come up with innovative and effective solutions,” said Hall. “The Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience is a spectacular opportunity for students to come together and experience and learn in a gorgeous environment about the role they can play in helping to protect the future for all.”

Nicole Sewell, a public health student, who participated in the winter series said, “As an out-of-state student, I wanted the opportunity to see more of Minnesota. Being outside and meeting new people was beneficial for my mental health. I learned a lot, but it didn’t feel like work. It was really valuable to get to work with students from other health professions to see the different ways they approach problems and different tools they have to solve them. The experience reminded me why I am passionate about what I'm studying.”

Spring Series: Addressing Complex Health Issues

For the spring series, guest expertise from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and the Medical School led case studies on soil pathogens and the impacts on climate change as well as the intersection of human health disparities and ecohealth.

Sarah Copeland, a veterinary student who participated in the spring trip, shared, “A key takeaway I learned was how important it is to work together across multiple health fields and disciplines when it comes to solving complex problems such as the impacts of climate change on health. Spending time in nature is also important for one's wellbeing– being out in nature was calming and allowed me to decompress and really enjoy my surroundings.”

Over the past academic year, the Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience has evolved to meet the changing needs of its participants. For many, it serves as a catalyst for personal and professional growth, challenging them to think critically and creatively about the complex issues facing our world. Whether through hands-on fieldwork, lively discussions, or quiet moments of reflection, participants emerge from the program with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things.

Looking ahead, the Itasca Ecohealth IPE Experience remains committed to its mission of fostering interprofessional collaboration and environmental stewardship. It will continue to feature guest expertise and lean into different themes based on the seasons. Programs like this offer a glimpse of hope—a reminder that by working together, we can build a healthier, more sustainable world for generations to come.


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