UW-L professor leads national initiative to develop hybrid course about policy issues at Yellowstone

Professor Jo Arney with student group in Yellowstone

In summer 2010, UW-L Professor Jo Arney took a group of UW-L students to the park where they learned about various wildlife management issues, including a contentious debate surrounding the park’s bison.

UW-La Crosse Professor Jo Arney looks to Yellowstone National Park as much more than a scenic getaway. To her the park filled with rolling mountains and roaming bison is the perfect setting for students around the country to learn about public policy.

In summer 2010, Arney took a group of UW-L students to the park where they learned about various wildlife management issues, including a contentious debate surrounding the park’s bison. Some bison in the park carry a bacterium that causes brucellosis, an infectious disease known to cause ungulates to abort their fetuses. Bison roaming beyond the park’s boundaries have spread the disease to cattle. In the last decade, thousands of wild bison have been slaughtered to protect the ranching industry.

In 2010, Arney’s students met stakeholders on all sides of the issue. They talked with animal rights groups who wanted to save the bison. They also sat in living rooms with cattle ranchers worried about financial ruin from losing too many cattle to disease. The ranchers wondered how much longer their family farms would last.

“Whenever we would talk to one group, students would agree with that group,” say Arney. “I wanted them to feel torn on an issue. I wanted them to see that policy actually has an affect on peoples’ lives.”

UW-L Professor Jo Arney

Jo Arney, assistant professor of political science, joined UW-L faculty in 2007. She teaches courses such as Environmental Politics and Ethics Management in Government and Nonprofit Organizations.

UW-L Alum Tyler Burkart, ’10, says Arney and the trip to Yellowstone inspired him to study political science and public administration at UW-L. Now assistant city administrator in Woodbury, Minn., he wants to one day become city administrator and believes in engaging in and developing his community.

“I feel that her teachings not only illustrated a general understanding of local government, but they demonstrated the role that individuals can play in the world to make our communities a better place,” says Burkart. “Her leadership and passion motivated me to become a better leader by not taking a back seat and fighting for the issues and people that I care about most.”

Arney first studied Yellowstone’s land management issues in summer 2009 as part of an American Association of State Colleges and University’s Stewardship of Public Lands course with other faculty from around the country. The trip inspired her to give her students a similar experience. But she realizes not every student can travel to Yellowstone for a public policy lesson.

That’s why Arney is the senior scholar directing a national AASCU project to bring the Yellowstone example to students. The goal is to create a national hybrid course on the stewardship of public lands, which would allow students to interactively explore issues within Yellowstone from afar. Arney describes it as an interactive textbook, including video interviews with ranchers, advocacy group members and others involved. The course could be used in a variety of settings from community colleges to four-year institutions.

And they could study many other issues happening at the park such as the reintroduction of wolves, the consequence of non-native fish, snowmobile use and pollution.

“There are a lot of localized issues in Yellowstone,” notes Arney. “Because you can talk to all sides — it’s a pretty neat experiment.”

Arney has returned to Yellowstone every summer since her initial visit. She returned in summer 2011 on a faculty research grant with an undergraduate student researcher and again in summer 2012 with the AASCU group to prepare for the national blended learning course. She’s writing about brucellosis control for several publications, including two chapters she’ll use to teach her UW-L class next spring. She also plans to offer a continuing education course in Yellowstone next summer if the course draws enough interest.

Although she has devoted years to exploring the brucellosis control issues at the park, she says she has never picked a side.

“I’m on all sides of it,” she notes. “There is no perfect solution. It shows the importance of compromise. That’s probably as close to a solution as you can get.”

The Jo Arney file

  • Nominated for The John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement. The award recognizes a lifetime passion for thinking about and preparing the next generation of civic leaders.
  • Campus leader in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities American Democracy Project initiative.
  • Within the Civic Engagement Action Series, represented UW-L in both the Stewardship of Public Lands Initiative and the eCitizenship Initiative.
  • Co-author of a chapter of a forthcoming book titled “Politics in the Information Age,” focusing on the role social media played in the large political protests in Wisconsin in spring 2011.
  • Co-coordinator for the freshman seminar UWL 100, a one-credit course designed to enhance the transition to college for first-year students.
  • Serves on a distinguished alumni award committee