For the third year in a row, I walk into Ancient Akrotiri, a 4,000 year-old Minoan town buried in meters of ash and pumice from the ~1613 BC caldera-forming eruption of Santorini Volcano. The excavation site is a gray labyrinth of 1-3 story houses, shops, narrow alleys and staircases built on gently dipping slopes and reflecting the modern pattern of towns on Santorini.
I thought my travel journal would be filled with pages and pages of my thoughts and experiences by now but I’ve had few minutes to spare. We’ve been going all day everyday. Planning, doing, more planning, class, answering questions, reading, editing. It’s the most fun I’ve had teaching a class and the most rewarding of any teaching experiences I’ve had.
My expectations before we arrived were varied. I knew the budding geologists would excel in this learning environment. I wasn’t sure, however, about the non-geologists. To what level should I bring them? How will they come up the curve and fill in the gaps between the knowledge of the older students who have taken more geology classes? To my surprise and delight, each student is meeting (and in some cases surpassing) a high scientific level of understanding.
Our days are filled with 6-8 hours of fieldwork. Moving about the island in different, remote locations to study the volcanic deposits of the last Minoan eruption. The students have learned high-level techniques of field geology and complex volcanology. Measuring stratigraphic sections, describing textures and mineralogy of rocks, quantitatively capturing thicknesses and attitudes of the rocks with Brunton compasses, making detailed sketches of depositional facies. With each new question I raise the bar slightly, and they continue to rise and surpass it.
The students have a camaraderie that is rare and impressive. We joke a lot. Everyone has their own unique talents that they bring to better the group. Musicians, writers, teachers, geologists, businessmen, sociologists. Their eagerness to learn, dedication to the science and sense of adventure surpasses all of my expectations. So many young students may shy from experiencing a new culture – I know I did when I was this age. Instead, they have taken charge of their education and experiences.
Allaire – The Adventurer. She is a young woman who has overcome life-changing injuries and travelled a difficult and physically challenging journey to Santorini. She has an intuitive understanding of geology even though she is an English major. She is a collector, an artist, and a writer.
Alex – My Understudy. Alex has been my TA for Geological Disasters for 2 years. She constantly challenges my own depth of knowledge through her many, many questions. I have taught her almost everything I know, and when I don’t know the answer, we look it up together.
Carly – The Teacher. As a major in elementary education, she is here to improve her earth science background. At first I didn’t know that she was enjoying herself as she is very quiet, and then one day I turn around and see her perched precariously on her stomach on top of an outcrop to accurately drop a ruler and measure its thickness. I smile.
Connor – The TA whose familiar motto is “Adapt, improvise, and overcome.” I had faith in him to be my sidekick and he has not disappointed me. He takes charge when he is needed and deeply cares for the students’ welfare. He is a logistical expert and a strong leader.
Joe – The Explorer. He is always running off by himself to this place and that to make sure he doesn’t miss an experience. While swimming at Caldera Beach, I lost him in the ocean only to find he had swum out beyond the rocks with waves crashing here and there just to see what he could see.
Jonathan – The Singer. Always yelling sarcasm and making me laugh. A Marketing major who surprises me daily with his depth of geological understanding. At first I questioned why he wanted to come on this trip, because of his major and educational interests. Now I know he has a unique and broad set of interests, including singing, marketing, business, natural landscapes, and geology.
Kevyn – The Observer. She is a Criminology major who has an itch to travel and experience the world. The material of this class was intimidating at first, but she meets each new day with an eagerness to learn. While measuring sections one afternoon, I photograph her siting the height of an outcrop using a Brunton compass.
Michelle – The Climber. A young woman who loves rocks so much she free climbs them in bare feet and makes my heart race while doing it. She reminds me of me….13 years ago. I did the same thing while on a field trip for geology.
Sam – The Anthropologist and budding geologist. No question goes unanswered. She takes charge of her education even when she has the stomach flu for 24 hours while traveling by plane and boat. Not once did I hear a complaint from her – impressive. Yesterday I fire a question about red vs. black scoria and she nailed it.
Scott – The Musician. He is the quietest of them all. He hadn’t made a sound all week and then we all jump in the Mediterranean and I hear this visceral yell. I turn around and it is Scott. Like all the excitement of our week was contained in that one sound.
I believe the friendships formed on this trip will last a lifetime. For years we will all look back on this time of exploration, adventure, and intense pace of learning in a dramatic geological playground. An unlikely group of 11 – the pioneers of NAU in Greece.
There are thousands of volcanoes we could have gone to, each with its own unique lure. Hot springs in Iceland, jungles in Central America, romance in Italy. The “chosen” one had to have historical significance in the western world. It had to be relatively easy to get to – I am not willing to take 9 students to remote locations in Indonesia or Africa. What location combines tectonics, volcanism, archaeology, good food, leisure, and cultural enrichment all at once? My vision narrows to the Mediterranean. Santorini: the most beautiful island in Europe.