Luther’s Earth and Environment in Italy semester is the unicorn of study-abroad programs: it combines science learning—already unusual in study-abroad programs—with arts and culture in a remote but exceedingly relevant setting. Laura Peterson, associate professor of environmental studies and chemistry, attended the Italy program in the early 2000s, when she was an undergraduate at Carleton College. After a years-long hiatus, the program, which focuses on geology and is open to all ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) students, resumed in 2012 under Luther’s administration, and students are reaping the rewards.
An idyllic village with layers of history
Italy is a geological hot spot, Peterson says. It sat under the Mediterranean Sea for more than 200 million years, recording changes in the environment in layers of sediment. Within the last two million years, those sediments lifted to create the Italian peninsula, displaying the earth’s history in layers of rock. These layers recorded changes in sea life, which can signal changes in sea temperature or ocean circulation and shed light on historic climate change, Peterson explains.
Coldigiocco (students call it Coldi), where the Italy program is headquarterd, sits along the calf of Italy’s boot. Less than two hours away lies the outcrop that geologist Walter Alvarez used to formulate his groundbreaking theory that a meteorological impact was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Students on the program visit this historic site, and Alvarez himself frequently turns up at Coldi, where he keeps an apartment and visits with students.
Coldi is a hilltop collection of 10 or 12 buildings that started life as a medieval farming village. In the 1990s, a group of geologists doing field research in the area banded together to purchase the buildings, which have become a base camp/observatory for these researchers and a small campus for ACM students.
“A lot of students have more urban study-abroad experiences,” Peterson says, “but this is a backdoor experience to Italy, a way of life you maybe wouldn’t recognize is still there if you were in the cities.”
“It was totally different from what any of my peers experienced studying aboard,” says Travis Houle ’15, who attended the program as a student in 2013 and returned as a teaching assistant in 2015. “It was such a remarkable immersion within a scientific community. You had literally some of the best geologists in the world who had purchased property or invested in this place or brought research. They were trickling in and out throughout the whole experience. At the dinner table at all times, it was like: Let’s talk about the science!”
Imagine sharing a communal meal around a wood-fired oven that dates to medieval times, chatting about your new passion with a dozen new friends and a couple of world-class experts, surrounded by gentle hills, olive groves, fruit trees, and grapevines, then making music together around the campfire as the sun sinks below the horizon. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
Becoming a rock hound
During the Italy semester, the group learns in modules, spending about a week on a particular lesson in a particular place—such as a rock outcrop, a local valley, a nearby cave system, or across the Adriatic Sea in Croatia—before moving on to the next. Peterson says, “The whole concept is that it’s field-based, hands-on inquiry. There really are not textbooks associated with the program. We do a little bit of classroom lecturing, but the program is meant to center around what students can go out and observe and interpret themselves. It’s liberating to a lot of students and serves a lot of learning styles.”
Lucia Holte ’17, a former environmental studies major who attended the program in 2015, is one of those students. “I’m someone who does really well with experiential learning,” she says. “If we’re going to learn about this kind of rock, this period of time, the K-T boundary, let’s go touch it, let’s go see it, let’s hike up and around and through it. If I were learning about that indoors, my knowledge of it and why I care about it is going to be a lot different. The personal connection I have with that time has to do with how I learned.”
During the semester, students map and interpret rock formations in the area, collect and analyze soil samples, and conduct independent research on widely diverse topics such as paleo climatology and biological surveys of local cave systems.
Learning about the future from the past
Houle says, “Throughout the program, we were engaging in science continuously, learning how to be a scientist. I had taken a couple of environmental science and geology classes before the program, but once we got there, we got to know the history of the area so intimately that your whole perspective of the world changes. You see these periods of great innovation and growth of life on the planet that are reflected in the geologic record, and you also come to understand how influential geology is for us today. Our understanding of geologic science is how we understand the impacts of climate change and how big of an issue it is.”
The overwhelming time scale that the Italy program centers on makes a deep impression on most of the students who participate in it. “I love that you can look at deep time and this broad historic spectrum and learn so much about the distant past, and it can also tell you a lot about our future,” Hannah Sutcliffe ’18, an environmental studies and anthropology major, says. “Paleo climate is something I got really interested in. The idea that we can reconstruct environments 60 million years old and use those to predict our future in this unprecedented era of climate change is kind of scary and kind of exciting. The greatest weapon we have to fight climate change is this sort of knowledge and being able to model the unknown.”