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If you happened to pass the Microbial Sciences building on the UW-Madison campus Thursday morning, you would have noticed a strange sight: college students swinging from a tree.

About a dozen students attempted to scale the swamp white oak as part of a tree-climbing lab. It's the highlight of the university's arboriculture course, where students learn to care for trees and the landscape.

Yes, for one day, they were getting course credit for climbing trees.

"We obviously weren't up there with chain saws, but one of the things you need to master before you use any type of equipment is climbing techniques," said Laura Jull, the instructor for Horticulture 375, Arboriculture and Landscape Maintenance.

Other area schools offer programs on how to care for trees, namely Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Stevens Point, said Jull, an associate professor of horticulture. But this is the only arboriculture class offered at UW-Madison, she said.

The once-per-semester tree-climbing lab was an opportunity for the students get out of the classroom and learn the arborist's art - how to safely climb a tree and care for it.

"It's not just about going out with a saw and a ladder," Jull said. "It's a lot more complicated than that."

Jull brought in two professional arborists to help teach the course. The students first got a crash course in knot-tying and equipment, tossing around terms like bowline, buntline hitch, and the fisherman's loop.

They emphasized safety, and students learned to yell out "stand clear!" before tossing a line into the tree.

While some students eagerly volunteered to don a harness and rest their weight on a system of ropes, others seemed timid about clambering up the roughly 75-foot-tree.

"It's a strange feeling because you're just hanging there on a rope, just sort of floating," said Sarah Ricker, a junior, after landing safely on the ground. "I was a little nervous because it was just one little loop that was holding you up there. And if anything happened, you would just kind of fall to the ground."

Sean Gere, owner of Gere Tree Care Inc., helped out with the lab and said a little bit of fear is a good thing.

"I prefer people err on the side of caution and be a little worried," he said. "But that's why we practice on the ground before we actually get in the tree. This is roughly the most dangerous job in the U.S., climbing trees."

The scene of college students perched high in the tree's canopy was enough to draw attention from passers-by and even prompted someone to alert the campus police, who got assurance from Jull that the activity was university-approved.

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