Widgets Magazine

Earth Systems hops to Hawaii

BRIAN HOWALD/The Stanford Daily

BRIAN HOWALD/The Stanford Daily

Say “Aloha” to Stanford’s new Earth Systems in Hawaii program.

Next fall, 20 students will be able to take an environmentally-focused quarter-long program in Hawaii that merges earth sciences, life sciences and Hawaiian culture. The School of Earth Sciences and Woods Institute for the Environment unveiled the Hawaii program for fall quarter 2010 in an e-mail to the Earth Systems mailing list last week.

The Hawaii program is the brainchild of Peter Vitousek, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Vitousek was born and raised in Hawaii and focused most of his academic research on the Pacific chain of islands. He pushed for a permanent Hawaiian outpost after seeing the high demand for several seminar trips to Hawaii he headed a few years ago.

“My trips were popular and the Australia program is always way oversubscribed, so I think that the Hawaii program will be a great opportunity for people interested in the earth sciences,” Vitousek said.

There has been a boom in earth systems enrollment in the past years and Vitousek says that while earth sciences students can choose from Bing’s Australia program, Stanford at Sea and field opportunities at the Hopkins Marine station, “there are never enough options.”

Stanford’s Hawaii program was partially funded by a generous donation from Julie Wrigley, a sustainability and environmental philanthropist, to provide students with field experience in sustainability research. The earth sciences and Woods Institute for the Environment carried the remainder of the cost, which field program coordinator Max Borella described as a “significant investment” on Stanford’s end.

The 20 students who will be accepted into the 10-week class will leapfrog around the Big Island of Hawaii for eight weeks and end with a two-week stay on Kauai. The program will offer three classes: Hawaiian Earth Sciences, Life Sciences and Human Systems and a three-unit independent research project.

Students will begin the program at Volcanoes National Park–the home of two of the world’s most active volcanoes–where they will stay at a military R&R (rest and relaxation) camp to study the volcanic processes and erosion. The group will then move to the northern end of the Big Island for about four weeks to a house owned by a boarding school to do terrestrial and marine work, looking especially at rainforests and coral reefs. Their work will conclude at the island of Kauai where they will stay in a field station–a place Borella calls the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii”–with a week-long final stop at a YMCA camp on the north shore of Kauai.

“One thing I’ve found working in Hawaii is that it’s a great model. You have most tropics and climate zones present in one area,” Vitousek said. “There are lava flows that are millions of years old,–spectacular gradients in climate and age of soils. From a biophysical standpoint, you just can’t beat it.”

According to Vitousek, the Hawaiian islands are a microcosm of sustainability adaptation: native Hawaiians managed to create an agricultural infrastructure on completely cut-off land without the help of things like container ships.

“Hawaii’s the perfect place to tackle the question of how you build a sustainable society in complete isolation,” Vitousek said. “Hundreds of yeas ago, Hawaiians had to think about issues of global sustainability. They faced and met those challenges. We’re facing some of the same issues today so it’s interesting to see how they approached it.”

Borella says that logistically, the program is “essentially ready to go” and his team is working to iron out administrative details like synchronizing the course curriculum so that classes are properly cross-listed under the biology, anthropology and earth sciences departments.

Borella stressed that the Hawaii program will be more integrated than many other seminars, interweaving the program’s anthropological, cultural and biological components.

“We don’t want the courses to be discreet modules that operate independently,” Borella said. “Each course component–from the ecologists to the soil scientists to the anthropologists–will be connected in a comprehensive way.”

“What I most love about the program is the student interaction,” said Borella, who came from the non-profit sector before settling at Stanford. “This is going to be an experiential, hands-on program that really resonates with students who want to learn about Hawaii.”

Jess McNally, a co-terminal student in earth systems and head TA for the program, did both Stanford at Sea and Stanford in Australia to study biology and global change. She said that the Hawaii program is ideal for students interested in evolutionary ecology and biology.

“The earth systems program is growing so rapidly so it’s exciting that there’s another option. The demand is definitely there,” McNally said. “Plus, Hawaii’s a fascinating place to investigate both cultural history and environmental history.”

Johnny Bartz ’10, a student advisor in the earth systems program, agrees that the program appears promising.

“It’s great to be able to get that hands-on experience and go out into the field and do research,” Bartz said. “The Hawaii program sounds like it’s being designed by a lot of faculty interested in ecology and biology and could be an opportunity for students to epitomize their passion for field work.”

For more information on the Hawaii Earth Systems program, check out the public information session on Feb. 8 at 12:30 p.m. in Y2E2.