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Glacial Field Course Teaches More Than Just Science:
Final Lesson Offers Final Challenge to Young Researchers

Date: Aug. 31, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by: Colleen Kelley and Chris Curran
Archive: Research News

Tom Lowell is a professor who makes his students cry.

But don't assume that simple statement is an insult. The students who cry the most are also the most likely to take his courses again and again.

Lowell and students in ice cave

Lowell is a glacial geologist at the University of Cincinnati, but more important, he can help you appreciate the mysteries and magic in any glacier on Earth.

"There's no such thing as an ugly glacier," he says, with a passion that translates readily into every lecture...every hillside hike...every glance across an icy landscape.

Each year, Lowell takes a group of students from UC and other universities out in the field to learn about glaciers first-hand. They've gone to Iceland, Canada, and this year, it was off to Alaska. Technically, they're learning glacial field methods. In the end, they learn much more than can ever be written in a course syllabus.

Lowell and students on glacier

They learn to live without for a few weeks, camping in tents and living off canned spaghetti, peanut butter and GORP. They learn to push their bodies hour after hour up rocky hillsides, across alder-covered riverbanks, and over ragged ridges of ice. They learn to trust themselves and each other while crossing rushing streams or clinging to a hillside while rocks tumble loosely underfoot. Sound risky? It's not. Lowell has given his students the confidence to attack any problem -- scientific or otherwise. They've learned, and they've grown.

They've learned how to take delicate cores from living trees, counting the rings to date a glacier's retreat without harming the tree itself. They understand how lichens might offer importance evidence about the age of more recent glacial retreats. And despite Lowell's preference to limit terminology, they all readily recognize the difference between a lateral and a medial moraine.

The scientific lessons then give way to a broader view of the world and a new and more challenging assignment the students willingly accept.

Lowell and students in ice cave

When Lowell demands that his students stop and think about their responsibility to society, they do. When he tells them they're on their own to contemplate the unprecedented breakdown and retreat of Alaska's great glaciers, they don't rush back to the waiting vans in search of dinner and a cold drink.

They take every last second to savor what they're experiencing. And then they cry.

They've been taught well..these students. They've been taught very, very well.

Click here to find out about some of the students in the course.

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