13 January 2010

Expedition for Learning: The Andean Geotrail

Posted by Michael McFadden

The Andean Geotrail ExpeditionI like to hike, I like to travel. My favorite guidebook is the Lonely Planet and I love going off the beaten path to discover new places and seek out sites of geological wonder. I’ve stepped on glaciers in Canada, fought the circum-polar current on a research cruise from Cape Town to Punta Arenas, eaten food cooked by Maori from hot springs in New Zealand, stuck my rock hammer in lava in Hawaii to make my own rocks, viewed buildings that suffered pancake collapse weeks after a devastating earthquake in Turkey, sought out ancient earthquake scarps in Greece, crawled through caves in California, and interviewed victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in India. These experiences helped instill in me a love and awe of the Earth. They shaped my personality and honed my interests.

But nothing–NOTHING–I have ever done can possibly compare to the amazing adventure experienced by Oliver Gallard and and Caroline Sassier as they biked–yes BIKED–8000 kilometers (nearly 5000 miles) from Ushuaia in South America’s Tierra del Fuego to Peru, visiting spectacular landscapes, active volcanoes, earthquake scarps, and sites of natural resource extraction. They slogged through mountain passes as high as 4700 meters (higher than 15,000 feet), and weathered temperatures ranging below freezing to sweltering! After their bikes were stolen, they WALKED the remaining 400 kilometers (~250 miles) to Nazca. Lucky that this last leg trends downhill!

Oliver and Caroline, both Earth scientists, didn’t trek half the length of South America just for the fun of it. Their project, called the Andean Geotrail “was born from our enthusiasm for our profession and our wish to spread it,” they write in their website. “With this project, we want to inspire the curiosity of young generations in our planet and to create scientific vocations by sharing our passion and our knowledge.”

Oliver and Caroline’s posters, presented ED11A. Using Web 2.0 Technologies to Facilitate Science Communications I Posters and ED23A. Education and Human Resources General Contributions Posters, tell an amazing story of the combination of adventure, data collection, and education. Their popular science expedition was followed in real time by more than 600 students in 17 schools in Norway and France. Through blogging and photo-sharing, students were with Oliver and Caroline as they traveled. “Science is sometimes presented in a static way in school,” Oliver told me at his poster presentation. “We wanted to show students that it science is active and interesting!”

Coordinating such a project took tons of effort, Caroline said. They had to sell their initial idea to funding agencies, who donated money and gear for their trip. They approached scientists to see if they could piggy-back on planned field work in the Andes so that students would have interesting things to see. They solicited scientific agencies for geological maps and other technical expertise, they encouraged teachers to include the Andean Geotrail in their lesson plans, and they made sure that each participating school had a map to track their adventure.  In the months before the project, they visited classrooms and spoke about their planned journey.

Oliver and Caroline n the Uyuni Salt Flat, BoliviaThen, after 9 months of biking and waking–in which they published 74 blog posts, 31 geology articles in newspapers and journals, 9 profiles of scientists, all while fielding questions from students–they returned home and immediately set to documenting the pedegogical impact of their trip! Through surveys, they tried to gauge whether students’ interests were piqued by what they saw along the Andean Geotrail and whether they are more interested in geoscience as a result. In general, results were positive!

What I love about this project is that, on a smaller level, it can be done by any earth scientist. For example, if scientists are planning field work on a Himalayan glacier, perhaps they can visit classrooms close to their home institutions to get students interested in the science of landscapes. Then on their trip, they could post blogs and upload photos so that students could see in real time what they are doing. Upon their return, these scientists could revisit classrooms and field any questions.  These are added steps, for sure, but they directly bring science to society!

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer