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UTSC's Environmental Science program offers unique field camps in Ontario and abroad

Glacier Lake, Iceland

Fieldwork in the real world, out there in the vast natural laboratory that is planet Earth, is a vital component of what we do at University of Toronto Scarborough. The students in the Department of Physical and Environmental Science at UTSC are abuzz with the prospect of their field camp in Iceland in late April and early May.

We just had the first ‘orientation’ session advising the students on what they will need to bring and what we’ll be doing. Accompanying us will be a teaching assistant Katherine Wallace and my good friend and geology colleague Kristinn Guðjónsson who lives in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, and who worked with us on the first episode of Geologic Journey. It seems he is related to every Icelander; perhaps not surprising given that there are only 300,000 of them. That’s about half the number of people who live in Scarborough!

The point of going to Iceland is to see how oceans widen by spreading along what are called ‘mid-ocean ridges’. These run along the centre lines of all modern oceans and are sites of continuous volcanic activity that make new crust, slowly shouldering old crust aside. Iceland marks the boundary of the North American plate and the European plate. Tomorrow you, your house and all of Ontario will be about a tenth of millimeter further west than it is today; we’re being pushed by the mid-ocean ridge in the Atlantic which conveniently pops up on land… in Iceland, the land of ice and fire. Volcanoes, glaciers, cold climates and hot springs, huge lava flows, islands freshly emerged from the sea, a unique Arctic flora and fauna and a fascinating history of settlement and volcanic eruptions offer a wealth of topics and environments for students to study.

Did you know the eruption of Laki in 1783-4 flung ash and sulphur gas across Europe killing crops, cattle and people, and contributing to the social unrest that triggered the French Revolution? Even economics too; Canadian companies are buying into Icelandic geothermal energy in a big way admittedly denting Icelandic pride along the way it must be said.

Our students usually do two such camps in their four-year program and previous camps have been held in Costa Rica (with Professor Howard), the Appalachians, the Rockies or California-Nevada and Arizona (everyone has to see the Grand Canyon!). These are a vitally important part of a student’s education, not just academically but in terms of their overall life experience. I have been running camps since 1983 and, several decades after the event, get emails as to how the camp was the most memorable part of their undergraduate experience. Students have met future spouses, made valuable contacts and simply broadened their horizons. Some return years later and re-do the camp with their own children!

Every year, usually without fail, there is a ‘dark horse’. This is someone who has been rather anonymous in their undergraduate life so far, the type that sits in the back of the lecture room and says nothing for an entire semester. On a field camp he or she comes alive and through various exercises and assignments leaves everyone standing and really makes an impression.

Students and faculty are thrown together for 10 days and you get to see and know students outside a formal classroom atmosphere. I can remember several camps where a student has emerged in this way, found out how exciting field work is and it has influenced his or her career path. Today, if asked to write a letter of reference for students, the first thing I want to know is whether they have done a field camp.

Of course it isn’t necessary to leave Ontario for 10 days to have a great field experience; students should in any event, know something of their own environment if they are to become educated citizens. Our province has a wealth of impressive geology sites and also much scope for showing environmental scientists the main issues ‘out there’ in regard to urban impacts on water, climate, air and so on. Many of our undergraduate courses have short field excursions – some lasting a few hours or three days – designed to give the student an overview of Southern Ontario and the near North, the Canadian Shield.

This is where many of our students will find a career; in the environmental science consulting field where junior scientists well trained in the physical sciences, geoscience and the biosciences will start by doing a few years field work before moving up the managerial ranks in a supervisory capacity. You’ll need to know how a water-well was drilled, what it was drilled into, how various pieces of equipment work, how to collect, understand and present field data, what the previous usage of a site was, and the importance of knowing how to sample water, soil, rock etc., that is often contaminated. We expect our doctors to be properly trained; it’s no different in environmental science.

There are formal pre requisites for the field camps run by the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC such as introductory courses at the first and second year level.

Try it. You never know where it might take you.

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