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Student Spotlight: Making Geology Education More Inclusive

Geology has been taught the same way for centuries, and people with disabilities often are left out. Student Ivan Carabajal is working to change that.

Date: 5/3/2016 6:00:00 PM
By: Zack Hatfield
Phone: (513) 556-5087
Photos By: Provided

The traditional geology curriculum has always presented severe problems of access to students with various disabilities. Physical impairment limits access to field outcrops, and visual impairment limits the use of the optical microscope for observing rocks in thin section. Ivan Carabajal, the first ever master’s student in geoscience education at the University of Cincinnati, is trying to change that.

Specifically, Carabajal is working to ensure that people with mobile and sensory disabilities are not excluded from geological instruction. 

The Los Angeles native landed at UC’s graduate program last summer, after earning his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California, Davis, in 2013. Joining UC was an easy decision to make, he said, considering the strong sense of community and renowned faculty that define UC’s nationally-ranked geology program in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. 

The recipient of a graduate research assistantship and the UC Graduate Student Governance Association Diversity Research Fellowship, Carabajal has made a strong positive impression on campus as someone who plans to help shape the future of how geology can be studied. This year, he was recognized with an outstanding mention by the Geological Society of America for a graduate student research grant. 

Carabajal's geological interests intersect at the old and the new. While concentrating on the study of the old—namely the timeworn and changing elements of the earth—his studies are driven by a need for the new, in this case a redeveloped geological praxis that encourages those with disabilities to practice geology. 

As a research assistant under the direction of Chris Atchison, assistant professor of teacher education in UC's College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH), Carabajal examines how pedagogical methods and fieldwork curricula across the country can become more accessible to students who identify as having a disability.

As a highly physical area of study, students with physical or sensory disabilities can be dissuaded from pursuing an education in geology. But as Carabajal research and his own experiences make clear, playing on the strengths of aspiring or professional geologists with disabilities is a way to reveal aspects of the science in a new light. 

One of Carabajal influences as an undergraduate was a blind paleontologist who was able to interpret the intricate features of invertebrate marine fossils, much like his sighted peers, despite his disability. Carabajal was also inspired by an innovative geologic map created by Julie Hendricks, a recent UC graduate in special education, to use textured patterns as a way for students with visual disabilities to visualize the geologic makeup of the Vancouver, BC, region during a recent accessible field trip. He believes that learning works best when students are seen for what they can do—not for what they cannot. 

Although the idea of a geologist with a pith helmet working alone to unearth the secrets of the world is fun to entertain, Carabajal said he finds solace in science’s social aspects. Whether it’s camping underneath an open sky in the desert with fellow geologists or exploring new caves, Carabajal thinks geology works better when more people are included. 

One memorable experience he’s had at UC was participating in a course designed by his graduate advisor that integrated students with cognitive disabilities into an inclusive science methods course for pre-service teachers. The course featured a weekend trip to Mammoth Cave National Park where many students had their first geological field experience. The class opened his eyes to the wonder of inclusive science and learning from the perspectives of others. Watching other students witness the cave for the first time reaffirmed his passion for making geology approachable for everyone. 

Because his research focuses mainly on unprecedented areas of geology, Carabajal is grateful the faculty have supported him throughout both his academic and topographical journeys. His advisor, Chris Atchison, as well as Warren Huff, professor of geology, are both mentors he said have been “incredibly helpful” in his research path. Carabajal also credits Craig Dietsch, an associate professor of geology and dedicated chess opponent, for being “an amazing faculty member.” 

“The geology department is incredibly welcoming, even though my research is unlike anyone else’s on the faculty,” Carabajal said. “At first, I was intimidated by this new method of conducting research that focuses a lot more on words and meaning than it does on numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, but I have learned to embrace it and appreciate how it can be used to understand difficult and complex phenomena. Having a home base here at UC with so many helpful people is really important.” 

Carabajal's studies will lead him to both Arizona this May and to western Ireland in May 2017 to participate in a current NSF-funded project led by Atchison and Steve Whitmeyer at James Madison University, where work on creating access to inaccessible field sites through audio-visual communication technologies for students with mobile disabilities. This summer, Carabajal will also be teaming up with researchers at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, to assess the accessibility of their Hydrocamp program in an effort to create a hydrogeology field course that is inclusive of all learners’ physical and sensory abilities. 

Keeping an eye on the future, Carabajal plans to apply to the University of Cincinnati’s doctoral program in education after getting his master’s degree next spring. It’s here at UC that he wants to continue pioneering geoscience education through new models of inclusive learning in field-based environments.

Discover more about UC's nationally-ranked geology department. 

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