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Geoscience in the Bahamas

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014

Moving beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom experience, HWS geoscience students and faculty partnered with the State University of New York, Oswego this January in "Carbonates Ancient and Modern -- The Bahamas," a 10-day field course exploring modern and ancient (Pleistocene and Holocene) carbonate environments on the Bahamian island of San Salvador.

Led by Nan Crystal Arens, associate professor of geoscience at HWS, and Diana Boyer, assistant professor of geology at SUNY Oswego, the course's 18 participants -- 14 from HWS and four from SUNY Oswego -- examined issues of climate change and human impact; observed limestone-forming environments (important bedrock environments in Upstate New York, among other places); and made connections between the historical rock record and the living laboratory of the island's geological processes.

"Most ancient reef environments that I've studied in the past have been in areas that have since changed climates," says Laura Kenny '14. "In San Salvador, however, many of the fossilized organisms we were viewing had living examples of themselves in the water right next to us. This direct comparison allowed us to see which organisms would fossilize, and give us an idea of what the area we were swimming in might look like in the future."

"In my past research experiences I dealt with short-term changes in environments: how the water quality in the Finger Lakes changes on seasonal to yearly basis," says T.J. Goldstoff '15. "In the Bahamas, we were able to compare a modern, living coral reef system to an ancient, fossilized reef from 150,000 years ago."

"In a big way, geoscience is about time, and to understand it you have to step out of your own human timescale and try to grasp how mind-bogglingly old and how incredibly active the Earth is," says Zoe Goodwin '15.

For Goodwin, the beach is "the perfect place" to bring the vast sweep of geological time into perspective. "It's a dynamic environment where everything is changing at all times. You can see the past, present and future right in front of you -- beach that used to be reef, sand that used to be rocks, rocks that used to be sand."

The course was based at the Gerace Research Centre, which occupies a former U.S. Naval Base on the island of San Salvador and has, for more than 30 years, operated as an educational and research institution. The Gerace Research Centre provides "accommodations, laboratory space, and logistical support for both teachers and researchers interested in the diverse and unique tropical environments available on San Salvador."

"We wanted to take students to a place where carbonate environments are forming right now, so they could understanding how the environment is incorporated into the rock record," Arens says. "A lot of light bulbs came on for students, in terms of understanding these abstract ideas."

"The students responded very positively to the trip," says Boyer. "This particular group blended, problem solved, and even recreated incredibly well together. I think much of the success of the trip was a result of the great enthusiasm and engagement of this group of students. I would be very interested in running this trip again with HWS students and faculty. I have built a great collaboration in both teaching and independently in research with Dr. Nan Crystal Arens and look forward to future engagements."

As part of the course, students also created a short film documenting the beach cleanup service-learning project in which they engaged as part of the course. Now in its final stages of editing, the film, which was funded by the Mellon Presidential Discretionary Grant, challenged students to present the issue of ocean trash in a way that is accessible to the public.

"We wanted to challenge students to communicate what we do and why we do it," says Arens. "There are many instances in policy and politics where scientific information would be influential. We want students to learn to communicate to an audience beyond scientists."

"These types of experiences are the definition of hands-on -- where students can literally touch and see processes in action, in a natural laboratory," says Boyer. "They provide learning that synthesizes disparate class materials in ways that draw out the ah-ha moments, and engage students to think beyond what they thought possible."

This course is the most recent in a series of geoscience field courses that builds upon classroom theory and laboratory practice. In the past, these courses have included trips to Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. The next field research trip is planned to the Midwest in the summer of 2014.

 


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