When is a Greek island beach a classroom? When you’re a student in Northern Arizona University geology lecturer Lisa Skinner’s summer study abroad program.
For the second summer in a row, Skinner took a small group of freshman and sophomore students and a teaching assistant to Santorini for an intensive three-week geological field experience study abroad program called ESS 209.
“It’s a really unique class on campus because it’s an early career study abroad class,” Skinner said. “It’s the only one that is targeted toward freshman and sophomore students of any major.”
So far, the program has made quite an impression on her students.
“My most memorable experience so far was on the ferry approaching Santorini for the first time,” said Holly Buban, a soon-to-be sophomore secondary education Earth science major at NAU. “We were all standing on the deck, all speechless because of the beautiful caldera cliffs that we were going to study.”
Santorini, a small island in the southern Aegean Sea, was the site of a catastrophic volcanic eruption during the second millennium B.C. That eruption wiped out a Minoan settlement — believed by some to be the inspiration for Plato’s mythical lost city of Atlantis — and dramatically changed the face of the island.
Skinner described it as geological paradise.
“We come here and do all the field work trying to interpret the rocks,” Skinner said. “The students learn all about this eruption and how it occurred in very fine detail. The last week, we study the modern hazards of the island, things like what’s happening with the volcano now.”
Skinner recruits students for the study abroad program from NAU’s geologic disasters course, a liberal studies class that part of the university’s First Year Learning Initiative. Skinner said she had been teaching the course for a few years when she and NAU University College Director Michelle Miller got an idea.
“What if we could have a first-year study abroad class, take students abroad who may never have left the country before, who may have an interest in geology but aren’t really sure if they want major in it or who maybe have other comparable interests?” Skinner said.
NAU incoming sophomore criminal justice major Marcella Barrios was one of those students. With the exception of a freshman-year spring break trip to Mexico, she had never left the country before and had rarely traveled outside Arizona.
“I've learned more in this setting than I've ever learned anywhere else,” Barrios said. “When I do research, I've never been able to see my topic in person. Here, I can walk 3 minutes outside our hotel and study the ash fall.”
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During the course, the students hiked to the summit of Mesa Vouno, gazed at the ruins of Ancient Thera, used rock descriptions to interpret the volcanic history of the island on its multi-colored beaches, traversed the north caldera rim formed by the last eruption of the volcano, swam in Santorini’s hot springs and visited the ancient Minoan city of Akroteri.
“It was buried completely with ash from the volcano and preserved perfectly, and seeing what's been excavated of the city was really spectacular,” said soon-to-be junior elementary education major Katie Crowley of Akroteri. “It's such a special experience to be able to walk in a city that was built 3,600 years ago.”
Greece was Crowley’s first trip outside the United States. In the program, she learned how to do geology field work, like drawing stratigraphic columns and outcrop sketches, how to properly describe rocks and how to interpret what she sees. She said she took the study abroad course because of the way Skinner described it.
“They’re not by themselves, they’re with me and I know the island,” Skinner said. “It’s safe, so it’s not super scary for a young 18- or 19-year-old to go abroad for a month without parents or knowing anyone. It gets their feet wet.”
Skinner stressed that her study abroad class was not a vacation. There were tests and a lot of writing. On top of their coursework, students had to make at least one blog post a week documenting what they had learned and their personal insights.
“One thing that has been the most interesting for me would have to be learning about the phases of the Minoan eruptions and then being able to see it all piece together in the rock record,” said soon-to-be junior parks and recreation management major Micah Florez.
The students also have to pay between $4,500 and $5,000 to take the summer study abroad course. That includes tuition and fees, travel expenses, room and board. Incoming sophomore geology major Ray Eckland had to make a difficult choice to get to Santorini.
“I had a choice of traveling to Greece with NAU or buying a car,” he said. “I figured that you can't drive a car to Greece, but you can drive a car in Greece.”
The experience has helped the students become global citizens.
“Outside of class, I have learned a decent amount of Greek, the current economic and social state of Greece, the geography of the island, how to make traditional dishes and how to make the most of every second I have in such a phenomenal place,” said incoming junior environmental sustainability major Savannah Rossi.
Skinner will begin recruiting for next year’s study abroad course in Santorini this fall. The students' blogs and photos are available to the public at nauingreece.wordpress.com.