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Truth In the Ice: Earlhamites collaborate on research expedition in Iceland

August 09, 2017

The research group from Earlham gathered on the ashy black gravel at the base of Sólheimajökull, a glacial finger that extends 15 kilometers from Mýrdalsjökull, an ice cap in southern Iceland. They were eager to start their climb, but first had to learn to walk.

Crampons, cleats with inch-long spikes for traction on the ice, were distributed and the Icelandic glacier guides gave them a rundown of safety issues for a glacier expedition. Melting ice cut crevasses and caverns into the ash-covered ice mounds looming ahead.

The researchers split into three groups. One took a path along the eastern edge of the glacier, another took the right edge, walking with feet slightly wider apart than usual to keep from snagging their newly beclawed feet. A third group stayed put and flew Kia, the expedition’s drone.

It was warm enough to shed a jacket, beautiful enough for a hike for hiking’s sake. The scenery, however, was secondary.

The two hiking groups each carried equipment that recorded elevation. After hiking along their respective edges of the glacier, they met in the middle to measure the volume of the ice at the head of Sólheimajökull.

The drone group also measured the ice. Equipped with lidar, a surveying method that uses a laser light to measure distance, the data collected allow every contour of the glacier to be measured. Sólheimajökull is shrinking, and the group from Earlham intended to find out how quickly by comparing measurements from previous years.

Nine Earlham students and three faculty members made the trip. The students are an academically diverse group, and the May-term trip to Iceland is itself multidisciplinary work, touching on biology, geology, computer science, leadership, outdoor education, archaeology and environmental science.

“Our goal is to look at problems that aren't typically solved by any one discipline,” says Charlie Peck, professor of computer science and leader of Earlham’s trips to Iceland since 2013. “If you look at the big, interesting problems — climate change and others — no one discipline owns these. These are things that have to be approached by people who come from a variety of disciplines.”

Powered by collaboration

The multidisciplinary, immersive approach is of a piece with Earlham’s distinctive approach to the liberal arts, which makes connections between classroom learning and experiential opportunities like off-campus study, internships and research.

The Iceland trip’s itinerary was planned so the group could make the most of their time. At the edges of the glacier, soil samples are taken from recently exposed earth to test the progress of soil microbes. Besides glacier topography, the drone and its mapping software are also put to use looking for archeological signs of habitation, a project that entails learning about Icelandic history in addition to programming software to recognize shapes in the landscape that point the way to Viking settlements. Bird nests and bird types are also recorded. A trip to a volcano  — inactive for the moment — sheds light on the geology of the island.

The team lived together in addition to working together. Assignments were made for everything from cleanup chores to scheduling the day’s research timeline. Part of the experience is learning to be a good teammate and lifting others up, or simply learning to be patient with others, and yourself.

“What I’ve taken away is more confidence in working with people and in an environment that is unfamiliar to me,” says Ai Lena Tomioka, a junior with majors in psychology and geology. Patience tops her list for life lessons from the trip, and she learned “to ask questions, and accept help — and persevere when the computer is frustrating you to bits.”

Problem-centered approach

The character of the Iceland field research is problem-centered, so those daily frustrations are to be expected. They’re a productive feature, not a bug.

“[Students] get a sense of what it's like to be presented with an open-ended problem that doesn't have an answer out of a book,” says Peck, “but rather one that has to be developed by working at it and working with others and learning a bit about other disciplines while they're doing that.”

“When you are hands-on, you've got to learn things quickly,” says junior Neil Nicholson, a computer science major. “By focusing on something for a whole day, you have a better feel and understanding than when reading a textbook. You adapt on the fly. There's a way that it pushes you to learn."

The problem-centered approach also changed how the students worked with faculty. Nicholson describes it as “working with them and not just for them.” Instead of waiting for instruction, he says, they are “bouncing ideas back and forth, adapting and creating together.”

The tight schedule for research created productive pressure to find better solutions regardless of comfort zones.

Jacob Barahona Kamsvaag, for example, a senior math major, has been focused on pure math at Earlham, the kind done without a practical application in mind.

“Generally the kind of math that I'm interested in is abstract and hard to apply to real life,” says Barahona Kamsvaag, “The math that I have done here has been very applied, and it has really pushed me to expand my skills in math and be more open to applied math because it's important stuff. It’s valuable experience, so I am glad to be doing it.”

When the laser-equipped drone is sent up over a possible archeological site, for example, it collects data that is interpreted by programs that rely on math, algorithms to help spot the lines of a former building, for example, or a buried livestock fence.

“The data is hard to read, though, so you need a lot of clever math to parse out all the data and make sense of it, says Barahona Kamsvaag. “It's a little nerve wracking — not the math so much, but having it all work together well. Nerve wracking and rewarding all in one.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. 

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256 and

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