Thirteen undergraduate students and two graduate students in UConn’s geoscience program found themselves on the sunny Bahamian island of San Salvador this January. The trip was not part of a tropical vacation, but rather a new winter intersession course that investigated the impact of Hurricane Joaquin, a powerful Category 4 storm that ripped through the Bahamas in late September of 2015.
Offered through the Center for Integrative Geosciences, the two-week intensive field course used the hurricane and its aftermath to study geological and climate-related issues facing small island nations today. Students not only examined the island’s geology, culture, and ecosystem, but also the future environmental sustainability of the archipelago.
“When you hear about going to the Bahamas in January, you think, ‘Oh, this will be nice.’ But it was challenging,” says Sam Loeb ’16 (CLAS), a geosciences major and geographic information science minor who participated in the course. “We got to see completely different geological formations than what we normally see in Connecticut.”
“My honors research focuses on another Bahamian island, so it was really interesting for me to actually be there and experience the culture and geology,” says classmate Dana Yakabowskas ’16 (CLAS), an anthropology, geoscience, and geography triple major.
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The Bahamas field course joins the Center’s existing winter intersession course in the mountainous island nation of Taiwan. Located on an active fault line, Taiwan regularly experiences geohazards like earthquakes and rockslides, says Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Integrative Geosciences Lisa Park Boush.
In contrast, students who traveled to San Salvador encountered a low topography and a completely different set of environmental and ecosystem concerns, Park Boush says.
“Our goal with this new course is to expand our portfolio of study abroad opportunities so that students get different field experiences every year and get to see a complement of Earth systems,” says Park Boush. “Undergraduates typically are not used to field-based experiences, so by exposing them to geology in a field setting, we are literally opening new worlds of intellectual engagement.”
Loeb and Yakabowskas say that highlights of the trip included exploring coral reefs, cave systems, and various rock formations on the island.
“The Bahamas is a carbonate system, which means it was formed by the ocean. So we could look at different rock formations and figure out where sea levels were at that point in history,” says Yakabowskas.
Students also spent time on the beaches of San Salvador collecting samples of shell fragments and sediment. Afterwards they would analyze these samples at the College of the Bahamas Gerace Research Centre, where Loeb says they could draw conclusions about the hurricane’s impact.
“We looked at broken shells from different beaches to get a gage of where the island was hurt the most,” he says.
The Bahamas field course is one of several recent enhancements to the geoscience curriculum that will increase experiential learning within the major. Others changes include a reconfigured Earth sciences laboratory course for entry-level students, as well as more upper-level courses and opportunities for fieldwork, including a new hydrology course in Rome that will be offered during the summer of 2016.
“Understanding and forecasting the behavior of a complex and evolving Earth system is one of the critical challenges that we face in science and in society,” says Park Boush. “More exposure to different geological environments—from high mountainous regions with earthquakes and landslides to stable carbonate islands affected by hurricanes and sea level rise—will make our students more broadly trained and better scientists.”
Student travel for this course was supported by gifts to the Nugget Fund in the Center for Integrative Geosciences.
By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences