Covenant's First Summer Institute


This summer, Covenant College hosted its first ever Summer Institute from July 22-27. The campus welcomed sixteen high school students from across the country to earn college credit and experience life as a Covenant student.

Dr. Heath Garris’s course focused on The Language of Nature while Dr. Nola Hecker’s explored The Nature of Language. Participants received one hour of college credit upon completion of one of these courses. Garris and Hecker said the courses complemented each other well and reflected the uniqueness of human beings as image bearers and their ability to communicate differently than the rest of creation.

“Both of these courses together, I think, highlight the things that are really special about human language, and the way we are made and communicate. It was really fun,” Hecker said.

A basic day at the Summer Institute began with class in the morning followed by lunch in the Great Hall. In the afternoons, students studied alongside current college students who served as teacher’s assistants, including John Bae, Davy Codington, Caroline McKissick, Juliette Henry and recent Covenant grad, Ella Sahertian.

“All of the students consistently said [the T.A.s] were amazing,” said Hecker. “It was fun to have the students in the class get exposure to Covenant students like that.”

After dinner, students participated in different evening events, such as attending a Lookouts baseball game, having a campfire worship night, and exploring Rock City.

“I think this is a more complete picture of what we do here at Covenant,” Dr. Garris said.

Garris’s summer class primarily focused on studying animal communication. His students examined this topic while discussing the implications of their study on one’s conception of humans as unique image bearers.

“Each day we were studying a different aspect of animal communication,” Garris said. “They did ultra frequency, acoustics, they listened to bird songs and insect sounds and bat echolocation, which was fun.”

Many of the students said that their favorite event of the week was going to a flooded cave near Nickajack Lake on Thursday night. There they observed bats and examined the animals’ feeding behavior in their natural habitat. Both professors canoed with their students out to the cave, which serves as a wildlife refuge for the endangered grey bat. Moreover, the cave is one of the nine maternity roosts for the species.

“What’s cool is that the mommies go out and forage at dusk, so somewhere between forty and a hundred thousand bats come out of the cave all at once,” Garris said.

“It was fascinating,” Hecker said regarding the event with a laugh. “You’ve got a lot of bats darting around you, very close to you, but it was fascinating what Dr. Garris said about how they communicate and how they figure out where you are and don’t run into you.”

The students witnessed this phenomenon and used ultra-frequency detectors to record the bats’ echolocation calls.  Garris’s students later analyzed the data they collected in the classroom to examine and discuss bat feeding behavior.

“My goal for the class was to learn a lot about animal communication and demonstrate what we can do at Covenant in the sciences,” Garris said. “I would love for these students to come to Covenant and major in Biology and the environmental sciences.”  

Meanwhile, students in Dr. Hecker’s course focused on sociolinguistics, specifically how social factors such as gender, ethnicity, age, and religion intersect with language. Additionally, they learned about the basic structure of language.

“I was really impressed with the way the students were able to do the readings and come up with some great questions to ask,” Hecker said. “They inspired some really cool discussions.”

One of Hecker’s favorite parts of the class was conversing with these high school students on research involving other high school students regarding language in adolescence.

“They had really cool ideas about why adolescence was important, and they were just busting out all of the things you read in literature which was cool,” Hecker said. At the end of the week, her students invented their own languages utilizing the skills they’d acquired during the course.

“I hope a lot of those students decide to come to Covenant,” Hecker said. “They were really fun to work with.”

Covenant’s Summer Institute also provided the opportunity for participants to experience student life alongside Residence Assistants (RAs), Meredith Lee and Dustin Hayes. “It was a team effort, not only academically, but with heavy involvement with the student life folks,” Dr. Jeff Hall, one of the program organizers, explained. “Jon Wylie, Isaiah Barnfield, a couple of RAs, and four teaching assistants helped out, so there were lots of other folks involved. Lots of relationships were formed as well, and that was a really important part of what happened.”

Hall further explained that students said they developed deep relationships and expressed how they came home with “new best friends” after their experience at Covenant. The positive feedback is encouraging, and the college plans to continue developing this program.

Next year, plans include expanding the Summer Institute to include two new classes in addition to the courses offered this past summer. Dr. Jay Green plans to teach a course entitled The History of the Future and Professor Jeff Morton plans to teach the course The Art of Place.