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Faculty to Explore Field-Based Science Program at Summer Workshop in Italy

Published: January 25, 2010

Why would anyone propose starting up an off-campus study program – and a science program, at that – in a tiny village, perched on a ridge in the Apennine Mountains in central Italy?

The answer, according to geology professor Cameron Davidson from Carleton College and environmental studies professor Laura Peterson from Luther College, is that the village in question – Coldigioco – is a center for geological research and is superbly situated for a field-based program in the earth and environmental sciences.

View of Coldigioco

View of Coldigioco

And though it's not part of the "official" answer, Coldigioco happens to be, Peterson said, "one of those places that people just seem to fall in love with."

This summer, with the support of a grant from the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project, Davidson and Peterson will take a group of faculty from ACM colleges to Coldigioco for a five-day workshop, "Earth and the Environment in Italy." The deadline to apply for the June workshop is February 10.

The workshop will be an opportunity for faculty in environmental studies and geology to see firsthand the resources available at the Geological Observatory of Coldigioco (OGC) and in the surrounding region, as well as to take part in the early stages of planning a possible new off-campus studies program for ACM science students. Participants also will collaborate on developing innovative field-based exercises and independent projects in the environmental sciences.

Cameron Davidson (left) and Alessandro Montanari (center) in the field.

Coldigioco draws students and researchers from around the world to study geology. In large part that's the result of the efforts of OGC Director Alessandro Montanari, who has lived and worked in the region for more than three decades and moved to the village in 1992 to create the observatory. Most of the town's buildings are owned by geologists, and the communal-style facilities are tailored to hosting groups of students.

Both Davidson and Peterson have strong connections to Coldigioco and Montanari through a geology seminar that Carleton ran at OGC from the early 1990s until a couple of years ago. The seminar, offered every two years, was established by Carleton geology professor David Bice (now at Penn State), who co-directed it with Montanari. The men knew each other from their years together in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Davidson co-directed the program with Montanari twice, in 2005 and 2007. Peterson served as a teaching assistant for the seminar in 2001, shortly after she graduated from Carleton, and again in 2005 when she was a graduate student in geology at Brown University.

Peterson also has conducted extensive research in Italy, for her senior project at Carleton and for her graduate work. "My research involves reconstructing past climate changes, and there are a lot of sedimentary rocks in Italy that are really ideal for getting samples that record what was going on climatically at the time they were deposited," she said.

Sibillini Mountains

A class in the field in the Sibillini Mountains, south of Coldigioco.

The Carleton seminar at OGC served as the field camp for the college's geology department, said Davidson, but he and Peterson are looking at a different model now – a science program rooted more broadly in earth and environmental sciences that would serve students and faculty across the ACM. Six ACM colleges offer a major in geology, and almost all of the colleges offer an environmental sciences or environmental studies major.

Collaboration at the summer workshop by faculty from a variety of ACM colleges will be a key component in efforts to create a program that could expand opportunities for students across the consortium, said Davidson and Peterson.

"We're used to looking at (an off-campus study program) from a geological perspective, and definitely have some ideas about what we could do from a more environmental perspective," Peterson said, "but we'd like to bring in some more opinions for that conversation. The idea is to maintain a really strong field component with experiential learning – people solving problems out in the field as opposed to in the classroom."

Italian Alps

Field work in the Dolomites, Italian Alps.

Students could branch out into their individual interests in their independent study projects, which could range into a variety of disciplines, according to Davidson. For example, chemistry or biology majors could study the biogeochemistry of the nearby Frasassi Cave.

The location is also ideal for environmental history projects. "There's so much in that part of Italy, especially from an environmental perspective, because of the long written record that is available," said Davidson. "You can really look at land use changes over time, all the way from using sketches to descriptions written down to what we see today. I think there’s a lot of potential there (for students)."

Faculty at ACM colleges who are interested in the workshop should visit the workshop website for more information. The registration deadline is February 10, 2010.

The ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project is supported by generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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