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Taking on the tundra

Mistakes were made—and that’s great!

Photos courtesy of Liam Amery ’22

In the summer of 2021, six civil and environmental engineering undergrads left the comforts of campus and set off for the Alaskan wilderness. Their task: to study beaded streams, a natural phenomenon unique to the Arctic tundra. The expedition is part of the Integrating Geosciences and Engineering in the Arctic (IGEA) program run by Professor Colin Gleason, who designed the one-year course specifically to challenge students by exposing them to the rigors of real-world field research.

From the first day of class in the spring 2021 semester, students were completely responsible for their research and trip planning, including booking flights, planning itineraries, and taking courses on wilderness safety. To take on these significant challenges, the group formed smaller focused teams. The medical team, for example, was responsible for medical treatment and illness and injury prevention. The team leads had to take an intensive wilderness course and become certified Wilderness First Responders. The gear team had to collect, organize, and monitor all the equipment that students decided they would need for the expedition. And the data team managed the collection and digitization of all the measurements taken in the field.

Taking on these targeted roles allowed students to focus on manageable tasks and see how their work impacted the whole group, the research itself, and the future of this kind of study. “While we advanced our scientific skills by working in the field, we also had the luxury of admiring the nature that we were trying to preserve through understanding more about it,” explains Brady Bell ’23, a member of both the safety and data teams, and a camp manager in the field. “I learned the most from the land, the only sound being the river we were surveying, with nothing around us for miles but moss barren, aside from a herd of caribou or musk ox on the horizon. Nature’s beauty reminds us of why we do what we do.”

Gleason was there to offer his students advice and direction when they were stuck, but otherwise, these undergrads were completely responsible for the expedition. “I was willing to let them make mistakes,” Gleason explains, “to allow them to get to the field and then suddenly realize, either in the field or the following semester when they are analyzing data, the mistake they made all the way back at the beginning of the year in preparing.”

Liam Amery ’22 says, “I think that the most valuable learning moments came when things did not go to plan.” For example, “our original field measurement plan took much longer than we had anticipated, so we had to adapt on the fly.” Amery adds, “We also had to spend some time in the fall fixing some of the ways that we collected our data. While at times it was frustrating that not everything we did went exactly as we planned it, it was very valuable in teaching us how to change plans based on our priorities, and how to better plan for future field work and data collection.”

Inspired by the first time he went into the field, Gleason designed the program as a way to give his students opportunities most researchers don’t have until graduate school. By designing their own research plan and experiments, organizing the materials they need to bring, and prioritizing their goals, students in this program learn critical research skills years before their peers. “Seeing them connect their preparation to their postmortem has been a really good learning experience for them,” Gleason says, “and it is only possible if we allow them to get it wrong.”