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New Tricks

U courses teach the public about everything from genomes to race relations to tipi construction.

It's early October and the evening light is fading. But in the courtyard of the College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS) on the U’s St. Paul campus, a pile of balsam poles and two rolls of canvas will be turned into a traditional Sioux tipi before nightfall. A group of roughly 30 students have gathered here for hands-on tutorials in not just tipi construction, but also how the early Dakota people kept warm and dry in these winter dwellings.

Bill White, the tipi enthusiast leading the demonstration, traces a line down the interior of one of the poles to show how the natural oils from his finger create a path for rain to travel down to the ground, sort of like a mini-downspout.

This lesson is part of Image, Memory, Perception: A Dakota Guide to Outdoor Survival. Organized and moderated by Harlen LaFontaine, a Bush Leadership Fellow and enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Reservation, the three-session course is offered by LearningLife, an ongoing series of short classes, seminars, and one-day immersion experiences offered by CCAPS for anyone who craves learning in an environment that encourages intellectual rigor.

“LearningLife is for people who want to combine personal development with academic engagement,” says Anastasia Faunce, the program director at CCAPS. “It’s designed to share the intellectual resources of the U with the general public.” In one popular offering, a U researcher helps participants understand the results of their 23andMe genetic tests. In another, a book club moderated by retired English and Women’s Studies Professor Toni McNaron explores race and race relations in the U.S.

For his course, LaFontaine convened a diverse group of experts, from a forest ecologist who gave an overview of Minnesota’s biomes to the founders of Maritime Heritage Minnesota, a nonprofit that identifies, documents, and preserves sunken watercraft, including dugout canoes.  An ethnobiologist schooled the group in Native American plants and foods, from prairie turnips to choke cherries to echinacea. And a retired chemical engineer who is now an expert on stone tools struck one rock against another to demonstrate flint knapping, an ancient method for shaping tools. His range of knowledge was not only impressive, but also living proof that if you’ve got the passion, it’s never too late to learn.

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