Scholars Travel to Arizona for Spring Break Course

For more than 20 years, Scholars students have spent their spring break studying the desert in Arizona. This year, 21 students enrolled in the 3-credit field geology course camped under the stars and traveled the state to learn about the role of the desert in a variety of disciplines, including astronomy, geology, human cultures, and ecology.

The group camped four nights and spent the other five nights in motels, observing several natural settings along the way. Students were graded on field work, a pre-trip quiz, and a final paper.

“The main benefit for the students is to get them away from the classroom to see firsthand the types of environments and laboratories or observatories we talk about in class,” Science and Global Change director Thomas Holtz explained. “In particular, they can see geological settings - such as the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, environments such as the Sonoran desert and the Chiricahua Mountains, and observatories such as the Discovery Channel Telescope and Kitt Peak observatory, that are totally unlike anything you can see in Maryland or the eastern part of the country in general.”

The Discovery Channel Telescope, a world-class telescope and among the top 20 in the world, according to Science, Discovery and the Universe Director Alan Peel, is the first stop on the trip. The group tours the telescope’s facilities and control room, talking about the scope’s construction.

The biannual Arizona alternative break trip has been available to Scholars students since the ‘90s, moving from the Life Sciences program to an eventual collaboration between Science and Global Change and Science, Discovery and the Universe in 2007.

 Peel and Holtz emphasized the camaraderie that a ten-day trip builds between peers and faculty. Peel also mentioned that the GEOL288A students have been “pestering us for a reunion later this semester.”

“I think something that contributed to the positive attitude was that everyone in the group was interested in some kind of aspect of nature, to the degree where they don’t complain that we’re taking a night hike in the middle of nowhere instead of partying back at the camp,” freshman SGC Scholar and biology major Emilia Roberts said. “Everyone went into the trip eager to learn something, whether it was an astrophysics major wanting to learn about the Vermilion flycatcher or a biology major wanting to learn about the winter constellations.”

“When we hiked down the Grand Canyon, we knew which rock formations we were passing through, and these corresponded to different time periods, so it was sort of like time traveling,” freshman SDU Scholar and astronomy and physics major Emma Schwartzman said.

Schwartzman learned about the Arizona trip during orientation over the summer and immediately decided she was interested in learning more about astronomy and geology, as well as hiking and camping.

“My favorite hike was definitely the day we spent in the Chiricahuas. The view at the top was spectacular, more than worth the hike,” Schwartzman shared. “Another [favorite moment] was the second morning in the Chiricahuas. A couple of us got up really early and went out to see the Milky Way and the night sky without the moon's interference, and then we stayed out until sunrise. The sunrise was just gorgeous.”

For some students, the hands-on fieldwork and overall experience in Arizona gave them more direction in their career paths.

“I came into college planning to become an electrical engineer, since I was good at working with circuits and other electrical engineering tasks,” freshman prospective civil engineering major and SGC Scholar Peter Wink said. “However, on this trip, I realized that I wanted to use my skills to help the environment instead of just profit. It showed me a larger perspective of the world and I feel more aware of what I want to do in a career than ever before.”

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