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Desert Studies Institute


The Desert Studies Institute (DSI) was established in 1997 as a cooperative program between the Department of Anthropology at Boise State University and Celebration Park, which is operated by Canyon County Parks, Recreation, and Waterways. Each year, the Desert Studies Institute provides a broad range of academic offerings of interest and value to students, teaching professionals, Idaho’s citizens, and visitors.

The mission of the Institute is to provide educational programs and scholarly presentations concerning the prehistory, history, ecology, and politics of Idaho’s desert environments and deserts worldwide. The programs are presented to enrich the understanding and appreciation of complex desert ecosystems in Idaho and to promote their perpetual preservation as educational resources for the future.


The faculty of the Desert Studies Institute is selected on the basis of their expertise in areas relating to the objectives of the DSI. Faculty from Boise State University and the region forms the core of the instructional faculty. The institute regularly arranges for the participation of distinguished scholars from other institutions.


All workshops are one credit each unless otherwise indicated, and are available for undergraduate or graduate credit, plus a small workshop fee. All workshops are listed under anthropology; most are cross-listed with other disciplines. For detailed information, or for registration information call Boise State Summer Programs/Extended Studies at (208) 426-1709.

Desert Studies Institute Workshops Summer 2022

Landscapes of Change: Dryland Soils, Landforms, and Climate
May 16 & 17, Jen Pierce

This class will examine the processes (physical, chemical, and biological) that create and change landforms and soils, and will investigate major concepts in geomorphology, arid soils, post-fire erosion, modern and Quaternary climate change, and the role of soils and the critical zone in carbon storage and human systems. This field-based course will focus on sites in the Boise area, including the Reynolds Creek Critical Zone Observatory (Owyhees), and the Boise area (river terraces and foothills).
Field Trip. Crosslisted with Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and Geosciences. 1 credit

The Seismology Experience
May 26 & 27, Lee Liberty

Seismologists study sound waves that propagate through the earth or along the earth’s surface. The recorded wave speed, frequency, and amplitude provide physical property estimates at both global and local scales.  In this class, we will discuss how earthquakes, explosions, ocean waves, and a hammer can reveal properties of a planet’s interior. Specifically, we will focus on the earth’s critical zone, or where humans interact with the subsurface.  After a morning lecture, we will use a sledge hammer to record sound waves using geophones and a seismograph. We will then utilize these measurements on the second day to infer soil properties, measure the depth to water, approximate the storage potential of water within the soils, infer the depositional environment, and estimate the ground response of these soils to earthquakes or other vibrations. Upon completion of this course, students will have a broader understanding of seismology, soils, and the planet’s interior through this experiential two-day class.
Crosslisted with Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and Geosciences. 1 credit

Late Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinctions: The Great Debate
May 30 & 31, Allison Wolfe

38 genera of mostly large mammals went extinct in North America at the end of the Pleistocene—but to this day, no one is exactly sure why. This workshop will focus on the hotly debated topic of what caused these extinctions. Did humans hunt them to extinction? Did climate change or disease cause their demise? Or is it not that simple? You’ll learn about the different theories and the debates that are still raging amongst scientists today, dive into the actual archaeological and paleontological evidence yourself, and discover how solving this mystery can be applied to modern wildlife conservation and might help to prevent future extinctions.
Crosslisted with Anthropology, Biological Sciences, and Environmental Studies. 1 credit

Desert Ecology
June 1 & 2, Nicki Schwend and Laura Barbour

Desert Ecology is a two-day workshop combining guided interpretive hikes, short lectures, and introductory field research and data collection. The course explores the ecology of one of our region’s most striking arid landscapes—the Snake River Canyon. Participants will learn about how native plants and animals, as well as human cultures, have adapted to contend with the challenges of desert environments. While investigating the present-day ecology of local landscapes, students will also learn about their geologic history—how they were shaped by everything from catastrophic floods, ancient lakes, and volcanic activity. We will learn how the flora and fauna of these landscapes have continued to develop since the end of the last Ice Age, and we will examine human history in this area over that same time span. There are no concessions at this course location, so pack a lunch and snacks with you both days!  The desert places that we will be exploring are arid and hot. Dress in comfortable layers and be prepared to hike up to 5 miles: a hat, sunscreen, bottled water, and walking shoes are mandatory. Celebration Park has water and restrooms, but the places we hike to may not. In this workshop, we will provide a broad overview of natural and human ecology through short lectures, guided hikes, service learning, and applied scientific practice.
Field Trip. Crosslisted with Anthropology, Biological Sciences, Environmental Studies, and Geosciences. 1 credit

Basque Sheepherding in the Great Basin
June 7 & 8, Nikki Gorrell

Basque immigrants began establishing themselves in the sheepherding industry in the American West in the 1880s. This workshop will concentrate on the area Basques refer to as the I.O.N. – Southwest Idaho, Southeast Oregon, and Northern Nevada – and the lasting impact Basque people and culture have had in communities wherein they contributed their distinct ethnic heritage.
Field Trip. Cross-listed with Anthropology, Environmental Studies. 1 credit.

Great Basin Ethnobotany
June 8 & 9, Jennifer Cuthbertson

An introduction to ethnobotany throughout the Great Basin. This workshop will include an overview of ethnobotany and archaeobotany, as well as a look at some of the ways in which humans have used plants in the shifting climates throughout the Great Basin. Plant characterizations and ecozones will also be discussed. A field visit within Boise is planned.
Field Trip. Cross-listed with Anthropology, Biological Sciences, and Environmental Studies. 1 credit.

The Way West through Southern Idaho
June 11 & 12, Jerry Jerrems

This workshop will review the history of emigration associated with the Oregon Trail in southern Idaho, placing an emphasis upon its role in leading to environmental degradation along the trail corridor.  A field trip is included.  Goals include an alternative perspective of the Oregon Trail as the relationship of the emigrants and Native Americans have been chronicled in the historic record and a clearer perspective of the archaeological evidence of the trail itself as observed in the field.   The content of this workshop includes a Powerpoint lecture to include an informative video on Saturday.  On Sunday a field trip will be conducted to Three Island Crossing, Bonneville Point, and an interpretive station on Hwy 21 just before the highway crosses the Boise River.  Time permitting, we will visit a site location on Columbia flats where multiple deep trail remnants are highly visible. At Three Island Crossing, we will visit the Oregon Trail interpretive museum.
Field Trip. Cross-listed with Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and History. 1 credit.

Ancient Peoples of Southern Idaho
June 14 & 15, Mark Plew and Nicki Schwend

This workshop reviews the prehistory of Southern Idaho from its earliest beginnings some 16,000 years ago to peoples at the time of European contact. The first day of this workshop will consist of on-campus PowerPoint lectures and demonstrations. The second day will meet at Celebration Park–Idaho’s only archaeological park where additional presentations will be presented prior to visits to and discussions of the park’s archaeological sites.
Field Trip. Cross-listed with Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and History. 1 credit.

Death of an Ecosystem
June 25 & 26, Eric Yensen

This workshop will focus on important ecological interactions in northern Great Basin ecosystems. Learn about the ecological roles of sagebrush, grasshoppers, ground squirrels, badgers, raptors, coyotes, and many others; how they interact to form a functional ecosystem; and how human activities are causing the collapse of this ecosystem.
Cross-listed with Anthropology, Biological Sciences, Environmental Studies, and Geosciences. 1 credit.