Distinguished Faculty: Karen Launchbaugh
Rangeland Professor’s Passion Gains National Attention
Having grown up on the prairies of North Dakota, Karen Launchbaugh’s passion for rangeland is as wide as the skies—but her method for teaching and managing that land is much narrower.
“I strive to conserve my beloved rangelands one acre and one student at a time,” said Launchbaugh, who is now a professor in the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources.
Launchbaugh, professor of rangeland ecology and management, was the 2014 U.S. Professor of the Year for the state of Idaho from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). The honor is given each year to one professor from each state and U.S. territory and is highly competitive.
“Karen Launchbaugh exemplifies outstanding undergraduate teaching and mentoring. Her impact on every student to come through the program is obvious in the success our graduates find in the workplace,” said Kurt Pregitzer, dean of the College of Natural Resources.
Launchbaugh agrees that success isn’t measured by plaques on the wall. She measures success by watching her students lead management decisions on the ground after taking gainful professional employment. She enjoys sitting in professional workplace meetings and watching CNR alumni speak as the experts. She often finds multiple graduates representing different sides of the same land management issue.
“That just feels amazing,” she said, her eyes brightening and a smile taking over her face. “It just makes me so proud to see these Vandals succeed.”
Launchbaugh came to the University of Idaho in 1996 as an assistant professor with a doctorate degree and lots of ideas. But it was her desire to be a life-long learner and actively involve undergraduates in her own learning that has driven her passion for teaching.
“There is nothing better than a student asking a question I don’t know the answer to,” she said. “We take that time in class to talk through it. It isn’t that it can’t be answered, we just have to think about it.”
She is always looking for ways to improve her teaching. About 10 years ago, a department conversation helped her realize that plant identification is one of the most important classes range student take. At that time, students learned plants from mounted dried specimens.
“I asked, ‘Why are we teaching the most important skill in the worst way?’” She knows the best lessons are found in the field, learning plants in the real world.
Each summer, as other students head off to summer jobs or home for a break, Launchbaugh and about 15 range students take to the road. More than 1,000 miles, seven days and hundreds of memories later, they return to campus with thick books of plant samples, notes and one assignment: spend the rest of the summer finding the rest of the plants to complete a plant identification book. It turns into an experiential learning odyssey, driven by an introduction to field botany and ending with self-directed study.
“Our students bond during those early summer nights cooking outside and sleeping under the stars. It is by far my favorite field trip.”
More than 15 years ago, the OX Ranch near Council, Idaho, asked Launchbaugh if her students could help them with a long-term rangeland monitoring project. This resulted in student-led research and service-learning opportunities. Every five years a group of students returns to evaluate plant communities on the ranch. Building on prior data, the information now goes back 40 years.
In Launchbaugh’s integrated rangeland management class, students get real-life experience by visiting a range town each year to meet with landowners. They listen and discuss concerns and needs, then provide extension-style bulletins to the landowners based on the conversation.
“The quality of their work goes up when they know it is going into the hands of landowners and not just another class project file,” Launchbaugh said.
She was recognized early in 2014 as the Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher by the national Range Science Education Council. Within the College of Natural Resources she was named the 2013 Outstanding Advisor and 2011 Outstanding Teacher. Additionally, the University of Idaho recognized her with an Annual Award for Teaching Excellence in 2014.
“Not only did she utilize excellent teaching techniques in the classroom, she also always made certain all of us had numerous collaborative opportunities at least once a week, breaking into small groups to work on problems or exercises, presenting to the class, and generating robust discussions of the material,” said Kendra Moseley Urbanik, a rangeland ecology and management graduate, in her support letter.
Launchbaugh is also the director of the Rangeland Center, a collaborative research and information center funded by the Idaho legislature. Through the center she works with landowners and agency staff to teach best practices for rangeland management.
It also provides research opportunities.
“I don’t have much to teach if I’m not out on the ground learning,” she said.
Providing students with a complete view of rangeland management is more than a lesson plan. Launchbaugh lives it. Her passion for range and her dedication to students is endless.
“As a former student, and a current colleague, I can speak to her absolute dedication to quality education and her unwavering commitment to her students and their careers in rangeland management,” said Seth McFarland, a rangeland ecology and management alumnus. “Those qualities combine with her endless energy and enthusiasm, and it's easy to see that Karen clearly merits this great honor.”
I strive to conserve my beloved rangelands one acre and one student at a time.