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February 18, 2011 — Geology students spending reading week in Chile to study evolution of the Earth

by Sean Bettam — Friday, Feb 18, 2011

February 18, 2011 — Geology students spending reading week in Chile to study evolution of the Earth

Students will encounter a variety of rocks and structures at sites in and around Santiago.

February 18, 2011
Sean Bettam

When people talk about evolution, it’s often about humans and the organisms around us — monkeys, birds, fish, and so on. But during reading week, a group of students in a second-year geology course will have the opportunity to examine important phenomena in the evolution of Earth itself, onsite in Chile. The opportunity is part of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Internationalized Course Modules (ICM) program.

The 29 students will encounter a variety of rocks and structures at sites in and around the nation’s capital of Santiago. The sites tell the story of 200 million years of subduction — tectonic plates sliding beneath one another — and associated earthquakes and volcanic activity. The area was first studied in 1835 by Charles Darwin, who developed insights there that became important to his arguments about evolution.

“The trip will provide students with the opportunity to discuss geologic concepts in a field setting, and a context for discussing fossils and geologic time. In particular, they will be able to explore a part of the global geologic record not recorded in Canada,” explained Bank. He will lead the trip along with U of T geology alumna Fernanda Soto, now a graduate student at the University of Chile, who will serve as their guide. When the students return, they will make a presentation, sharing the rocks and fossils they collected with the rest of the class.

Students will also come away with much more than just an understanding of the history of the geologic activity in the region. They will better understand the interconnections between humans and the natural world. “It will allow students to draw connections to ethical issues — mining, earthquakes, use of resources — in an unfamiliar setting,” Bank said.

Planning for the expedition arose out of discussions between Bank and second-year University College student Faith Meadows, and it was Meadows who eventually submitted the proposal to the ICM review committee. “This trip presents an amazing opportunity,” she said.  “Not very many students could afford the full cost of a trip of this nature. The ICM program makes it possible.”

The trip will be a first for undergraduate students at U of T so early in their study of geology. Currently, geology students get no field experience before 300-level courses, and even then the excursions are completed in one day or over a weekend at the most, and never outside of the province. The Chile trip will be the first international research experience for undergraduates in the department.

Alex Pernin, a second-year University College student, cannot wait to pack his bags and go. “I’m a geology specialist; I study the Earth and its processes. How do you study the physical world around you when in class? The same way you read a novel with your eyes closed,” he said. “I always see figures of geologic structures and geographic locations in Powerpoint presentations but students need to explore and be in the field to truly learn. Chile will be an excellent place to study geology, especially with an entire class.”

“We expect that students will be much better prepared for fieldwork in these courses after completing the ICM,” said Bank. “An early exposure to field sites and a discussion of how an expert evaluates each site is extremely beneficial to students’ building of knowledge.”

The ICM program provides an opportunity for faculty members to incorporate an intensive international experience into the framework of existing undergraduate courses. ICMs are designed to enhance students’ classroom learning through the application of course content to relevant resources outside of Canada.

Since the ICMs were first introduced four years ago, 30 groups of students have traveled to destinations in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States. In each case, the travel option was integrated into the course plan; in many but not all instances, travel was scheduled to coincide with Reading Week.

“There are some logistics — how to prepare for 30 people in a hostel kitchen, for example,” Meadows says, of the final planning for the trip over the next few weeks. “But those things usually fall into place. Being able to experience hands-on learning in a different country and to know that you can take your education wherever you want to go is far beyond what a classroom can offer.”