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Shared Environment: ACM Faculty Collaborate on Earth Science Program in Italy

Published: January 4, 2013

Go to ACM Notes

As they looked out over dramatic landscapes of the Apennine Mountains in Italy this past fall, 13 students from four ACM colleges were engaged in a new off-campus study program that takes a hands-on, project-based approach to studying earth science and the interactions between people and the environment.

The program – Earth & Environment in Italy – is sponsored by Luther College and shared through the ACM consortium, making it available to students at all 14 member colleges.

Program field trip

An overlook of the area the students mapped as part of their first project.

It came about through a collaborative effort by faculty from across the ACM, who gathered at a workshop in summer 2010 funded by the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) project to assess whether such a program would be feasible and sustainable.

So far, the answer is "yes," based on the success of the program's inaugural semester and the continuing support shown by the workshop participants.

"The intent from the start was that the program would be shared with the ACM schools," said Luther professor Laura Peterson, the program's coordinator and fall 2012 director. "One of the things that worked really well about the FaCE workshop was that we were able to introduce faculty from quite a few of the ACM campuses to the location and the possibilities there, so they're in a better position to help get their students interested [in the program]."

Curriculum tailored to fit the needs of students at ACM colleges

Earth & Environment in Italy

Application deadline for Fall 2013: February 1

The faculty designed the program to respond to the interests and needs of students throughout the consortium, using ideas gleaned from discussions at the workshop. The visiting faculty director each fall will come from one of the ACM colleges, with Lawrence University geology professor Jeff Clark leading the program in fall 2013.

Six of the 14 ACM colleges have geology departments and offer majors in the discipline. Almost all of the ACM colleges offer environmental studies, although the specific curricula vary from campus to campus. Luther, for example, has a track within the environmental studies major for students to concentrate in earth sciences, but courses are limited since Peterson is the only earth scientist on the college's faculty.

Collecting soil samples

Collecting soil samples for a project investigating geology, soils, and agriculture.

"We found that [the program] was great for our environmental studies students who wanted some more geology," Peterson noted. "We had several students from campuses that have geology majors, and the program worked really well for them, too."

"I think the program this fall took every student from whatever level they were at and advanced it," said Clark. "The only prerequisite is one lab science course, so there’s no prior knowledge of even basic geology [required]. You can learn that on site. The first time we see a metamorphic rock, you'll be told what a metamorphic rock is."

On the other end of the spectrum, Clark said, "even a senior geology student is going to see things in a completely different context [in Italy] than they've ever seen them before. We have the last ten days [of the program] dedicated to individual independent study projects, and that's where they can let their imaginations run, as well."

This fall will be Clark's fourth visit to the program's site in the tiny, picturesque village of Coldigioco in the Marche region of central Italy. He was a participant in the FaCE workshop, lead a group of Lawrence geology majors for a two-week residence at Coldigioco in 2011, and returned this past summer to develop teaching modules for the program.

The Geological Observatory of Coldigioco (OGC), a research and education facility, hosts the program. Renovated, centuries-old farm buildings house labs, and work spaces, dormitory-style rooms for student groups and for geologists from around the world who visit the observatory to conduct research. Meals are prepared communally, and everyone takes turns with the cooking and chores.

Marble quarry in northern Tuscany

Visiting a marble quarry in northern Tuscany, which has been in use since Roman times.

A group of geologists, headed by OGC director Alessandro Montanari, established the observatory two decades ago. Carleton College regularly held a geology seminar there every other year from 1993 to 2007. Geologist Cameron Davidson was among the Carleton faculty who taught the seminar and Peterson served as a teaching assistant twice. The two of them organized the FaCE workshop and subsequently took the lead in planning the program.

The program's faculty director and Montanari team-teach two courses – Earth Systems and the Environment and The Geology of Italy – and oversee the students' independent research projects. Students also take an art course, Sciences and the Aesthetic, as well as conversational Italian to help them in their travels around Italy.

Project-based approach emphasizes learning in the field

A key to the program's broad appeal is its pedagogical approach, according to both Peterson and Clark. The curriculum is built around several modules, or projects, that involve field trips to gather data – up to several days each for the three major trips during the semester – and time back at the observatory to analyze what's been found and write up the results. Students generally work on the projects in pairs or small groups.

Taking measurements for the mapping project

Taking a strike and dip measurement with a compass to determine the orientation of the rock layers for the mapping project.

Along with short excursions in the Coldigioco region, the fall 2012 syllabus included three extended field trips:

  • Studying the formation of the famous Carrera marbles, which have been quarried since Roman times, during a visit to Northern Tuscany;
  • Observing geologic history of the Italian Alps and examining how climate change will play a role in the future of the region, particularly in relation to precipitation patterns; and
  • Tracing the impact of geology and soil development on agricultural production on an island along the Croatian coast since the time of the ancient Greeks.

"It's very field intensive, not only in terms of going into the field to get the data, but most of the 'lectures' are given on the actual site," Clark said. "What better place to learn about something, where you can actually see it and touch it? It's a geology field camp setting, but most students will not have experienced that sort of out-in-the-field learning."

It's an approach that’s not possible during a regular semester calendar on campus, Peterson noted, where students would be taking other classes, too. Since all the program participants take all of the classes, the Science and Aesthetics course is scheduled around the field trips.

Science and Aesthetics class

A class in the Science and Aesthetics course.

"A certain number of the program days were set aside for the art course," Peterson said. "It added variety, having some days that were set aside for a totally different way of thinking, and it worked well for the overall rhythm of the program."

"Artists have a very keen eye and have a lot of insights into looking at landscapes," Clark added. "Although the course really is an art course, we're trying to use that as a way to improve [the students'] eye in the field and also their ability to communicate in scientific writing and graphics."

Overall, said Clark, "I think the program is a unique opportunity. There are not a lot of programs out there that have a geoscience basis, and I think the project-based approach is something that students respond to. You really let your work guide your day, rather than a class schedule."

"The students admitted it was very intense," Peterson added, "but they liked being able to focus on just one thing at a time and really delve into it."

Photos courtesy of Laura Peterson.


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