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The Coolest Classroom on Earth: UC Course Puts Students on Ice

Date: Aug. 17, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Photos by Colleen Kelley
Contact: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Archive: Research News

The coolest course at UC this summer might easily qualify for the toughest course as well.

It's called Glacial Field Methods, and it's taken a group of 16 to the icy slopes of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula and the Chugach Mountains. Hiking to Tebenkof Glacier

The group includes two students from Northern Kentucky University and two from Indiana University as well as a graduate student from the University of Washington. The other students are undergraduate and graduate students from UC.

Professors Thomas Lowell and Warren Huff are helping them to understand how glaciers work and how changes in glaciers over time can mirror changes in climate.

Scientifically, the course might appear less demanding on the surface. "I'm not going to use a lot of terminology," said Lowell, referring to a snowpack as "that white stuff over there" and a common geological feature as a "bathtub ring of debris."

But in reality the course is incredibly demanding, both intellectually and physically. Student jumps the creek on the hike

Nearly every day is marked by a hike that could be the modern-day equivalent of the Bataan Death March (at least that's what the writer and photographer thought!). Whether the students are panting up a steep, snow-covered slope, slipping on moss-covered rocks as they cross a rushing stream, or bushwhacking their way through a thick tangle of alders, the day is not complete without a few blisters, bumps and bruises.

"How high are we?" asks a group member partway through an 8-hour climb. "Not high enough!" yells back Lowell who promised hour after hour, "We'll climb just a little bit farther and THEN we'll get some spectacular views."

The encouragement pays off, and the payoff is enormous. The students come face-to-face with glaciers in action. They can see them from above, from the sides, and even from underneath (but only when Lowell first determines that an ice cave is stable enough for students to enter).

Lowell and other senior geologists on the trip were able to develop one impromptu lesson after investigating an ice cave in Tebenkof Glacier near Blackstone Bay.

Floating in the ice were bits of rocky debris that theories can't quite explain. But there they were...offering a good opportunity for the group to discuss the difference between textbook science and real-world observations.

These unexpected lessons are actually the best examples of real-life science and the true purpose of the course. The group is led by UC Professor Thomas Lowell

"Textbooks always have these nice neat pictures and drawings," said Lowell. "The real world isn't so nice and neat. You have to do some field reasoning. That's the strength of this course."

The course continues through August 27th.

Click here for additional reports on the trip

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