Experiential learning in the desert

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

"Camel noses!" came the answer from the back of our mini-bus. The question was "what is one memory or thought you would take away from yesterday?" Other thoughts about yesterday centered around the bookends of sunrise and sunset, changes in geography, the orange of the dunes against the blue sky, the beauty of the desert sunset, and the awesomeness of being present in the place and the moment.

Luther students ride in a camel caravan.

So, where were we? We began our day watching the sunrise on the rooftop terrace of our Riad (editor's note a Riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard... don't worry I had to look it up) in the ancient city of Fez Morocco. From there we traveled through the Middle Atlas Mountains with stops for a snowball fight and monkey feeding. We descended from the mountains into the plains where we traveled through towns abandoned with the overland spice trade. Ultimately, the plains turn to desert with high plateaus. We experienced the wonder of coming around a bend and seeing a valley oasis, full of Date Palms. We ended our day about 35 kilometers from the Algerian border, at a desert camp site watching the sun set over the Moroccan desert. It was quite a day.

We arrived just after 6 p.m. at the auberge (editor's note, an auberge is an inn... yes I had to look this one up too) where we met our guides for the night. We tied up our turbans and mounted our camels. This was a new experience for all but one of our group. As we rode out of the hotel area and into the dunes, each camel got a name. We also learned that camels are not the most comfortable beasts to ride. But it was fun, and a great shared learning experience for everyone.

Luther students on the desert caravan.

Many of the students shared a sentiment along the lines of "Holy Crap! How did I get so lucky to be here on a sand dune in the middle of the desert?" If you haven't experienced the quiet beauty of desert sand dunes you should add it to your bucket list. As one member of the group said, "it is just sand, but it is really beautiful." For me, the word that has stuck in my head throughout our time here in Morocco has been authentic. The leather tanneries of Fez are not selling mass produced goods. The marketplace is a real working marketplace. The dunes are not arranged for our viewing pleasure. You will find no dune gardeners out there arranging things and picking up the trash. The wind and the sand take care of the cleaning. Last night's footprints were erased by the breeze that came up early this morning.

After enjoying the sunset at the top of one of the taller (160 feet) dunes, we came down to our little nomadic camp in the valley where our guides, four young men, served us tea. We talked with them a bit about how the recent attack in Tunisia has had very negative impact on tourism in Morocco. It is sad for them, as this is such a beautiful country, and we have felt safe and warmly welcomed almost everywhere. At length, tea was followed by a Moroccan meal. There was a rice salad with tuna and tomato, onion, peppers and oranges. followed by a tagine filled with potatoes, carrots, and beef. For desert, oranges and apples. After cleaning up a bit our guides returned with traditional African drums and played and sang for us.

There were no distractions from this group experience as we had no cell service and no WiFi. The guides also sang some traditional Moroccan songs for us. All of them were Muslim, and at least two of them came from Berber backgrounds. There was a bit of dancing by Jenna and Angel, and drum lessons for a few. When they finished they asked us to sing for them. It was a little bit sad how hard we had to struggle to think of a song everyone knew. The nostalgic part of me thinks that could be because we need more nights of face to face entertainment, and fewer with WiFi. The other parts of me are happy to be writing this post on my iPad knowing I can upload it and all the pictures from almost anywhere else. In the end, Ethan, Ben and I were the brave ones and we gave our best rendition of the college hymn, "To Luther." A bit later the appropriate beat inspired a rousing rendition of "We Will Rock You" with Ben taking the lead and showing a part of himself that I hadn't seen yet.

Luther students paying homage to their school.

This morning, when I got to the top of the dune to watch the sun rise, I found a water bottle left over from a previous group. The wind had blown the sand over and around the bottle leaving a very interesting pattern on the leeward side. A miniature example of the sand dunes and the desert as a whole. I don't know what the last two days will mean for the students in the long run. I don't even know how today's experience will shape my own future. But I know it will, as each past travel adventure has left its mark. It strikes me that the bottle and the dunes are a great metaphor for study abroad and Lutheran higher education. We can lecture for hours, and give them days of homework, but it is these experiences that will shape our students in ways we cannot possibly imagine or plan.

Brad Miller

Brad Miller

Brad Miller is a professor emeritus of computer science and data science at Luther College where he also served as chair of the department. Miller’s primary teaching interests included Machine Learning, Data Visualization, and Web Programming. Miller’s research focuses on interactive textbooks and has developed into the organization known as Runestone Interactive. Runestone interactive serves free, high quality textbooks in the browser to over 20,000 students a day around the world. Miller loves to cook and travel, you can read about his adventures on his blog A Reputable Journal.

View all posts

{ Return to Ideas and Creations for more posts. }


  • April 12 2015 at 1:37 pm
    Marilyn Larson (Meredith's grandma)

    Thanks for the great article.  What a wonderful experience for all of you, how blessed all of you are for being able to take part in this.  Can't wait to talk to Meredith when she gets home.

  • April 13 2015 at 1:32 pm
    Brad Miller
    Hi Marilyn, Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. We are really enjoying our time with Meredith and all of our students here in Malta. Today was particularly fun as we have all just started to arrive back in Malta after our week of separate travels. It was interesting to hear about Meredith's experiences in Sweden and Germany, and we look forward to the rest of the group getting back from Greece, and Croatia early tomorrow morning. It will be fun to have one of our group dinners and hear the stories from everyone and their travels. When we left Malta for Morocco it was early spring. After just two weeks the weather has improved dramatically. We are all looking forward to the warm dry weather that makes Malta such a nice place to live.
  • December 18 2017 at 9:23 pm
    bali cab driver

    Thanks for the great article. What a wonderful experience for all of you.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
Not Comment
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
not URL
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)