By Olivia Smucker

It’s not often highlights of a summer road trip include water sample testing and searching for macro invertebrates.

However, for Eastern Mennonite School, located in Harrisonburg, Va., these activities are just another part of what makes their biennial cross-country trip so unique. The three-week trip, called Discovery, takes high school students who are interested in science across the United States to learn firsthand about environmental and sustainability issues. While the stops along the way vary from year to year, a group of around 20 students and teachers always makes time to stop in at Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center to get some hands-on field experience.

Students tackle wide variety of topics

This year’s trip in June took the group of 26 to locations like San Diego, the California-Mexico border, First Nations reservations and Glacier National Park to learn about immigration, indigenous rights, climate change, sustainable farming and more. This year, their stop at the Merry Lea was their penultimate, providing much needed reflection time and closure led by Tom Hartzell, coordinator of residential undergraduate programs at Merry Lea.

During their overnight stay at Merry Lea, the group explored a number of elements that make Merry Lea a regular destination on the Discovery trip. Students and teachers alike waded into the wetlands, helped care for the farm animals and enjoyed the woody perennial polyculture, a form of restoration agriculture where nut trees, fruit trees, berry bushes and grazing animals are raised together.

For Meghan Eggert, a senior from EMS who is especially interested in science pertaining to animals, favorite activities included studying macro invertebrates found in the wetland and playing with the animals in the barn.

Sustainability a primary focus during visit

The green buildings and structures found at Merry Lea were also highlights for this year’s group, especially the LEED®️ Platinum standard Reith Village. An ecological field station built in 2007, Reith Village serves as housing for undergraduate programs and was designed with a strong commitment to sustainability. The village was one key reason why the environmental center has been included on almost every trip since 2003, with another being the nearby wind turbine, a particular favorite of the trip’s nurse, Silas Driver (EMS ‘15).

Another unique sustainability feature that the group learned about was the natural sewage filtration system in the wetlands behind Reith Village. Through a structure of rocks, sand and plant life, the water moves through the system and comes out cleaner than normal well water!

This part of Merry Lea was of particular interest to the leaders of the trip, namely Kendal Bauman (GC ‘82) and Lee Good, both teachers at EMS. This was Good’s fifth Discovery trip. He has brought the group to Merry Lea three of those times, and references Merry Lea as a special place that he values sharing with his students.

“My favorite part [of Merry Lea] is the great programming.  Our students’ learning is enriched by the many talented and passionate people they meet on the trip. At ML we get to meet so many at once!” said Good. He also said that bringing students to Merry Lea has helped him to personally be a better advocate for Goshen College. He encourages EMS students to consider the school.

Curious about learning more?

Merry Lea is a nature sanctuary near Wolf Lake, Ind. Its 1,189 acres are a diverse patchwork of wetlands, woodlands, prairies and savannas. Passing through northern Indiana and want to see the things in this article for yourself? Our trails are open from dawn until dusk and available staff will be happy to show visitors around if you call in advance. Learn more at

To learn more about the 2019 Discovery trip and see pictures of their time at Merry Lea, visit