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Exploring the World

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Most UW students spend September wrapping up their summer activities and preparing to return to campus. But students in Exploration Seminars spend the month asking big questions in faraway lands.

Exploration Seminars, introduced in 2003, provide an intensive study abroad opportunity for UW undergraduates. This year nine seminars were offered, in locations ranging from China to the Canary Islands.

Students take a break from studying volcanoes during an Exploration Seminar in the Canary Islands.

Students take a break from studying volcanoes during an Exploration Seminar in the Canary Islands.

Why add this September option when quarter-long study abroad opportunities abound? It’s a chance to include students and faculty who might not be able to travel for a full quarter, explains Paul LePore, assistant dean for educational programs in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“A lot of our departments have incorporated global learning experiences,” says LePore, “but there are students who cannot commit to a quarter or year away. Some students cannot leave jobs or family; others risk missing an essential course in a sequence required for their degree. For those students, there is little freedom to be away from campus during the academic year.”

There is also the cultural notion that some departments offer study abroad and others do not. “We want to change that,” says LePore, who credits Jim Clowes and the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) Program with developing new models of study abroad. “Whether you are studying natural sciences or humanities, arts or social sciences, placing learning into a global context is valuable. We want to provide opportunities to do that.”

All of the seminars were proposed by faculty, who were asked what they would want to do if they had a month to study anywhere with 15 to 20 undergraduates. 

For Bruce Balick, professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy, the timing was perfect. “It was one of those cosmic convergences,” he says. “I have long wanted to delve into Renaissance science but never really had the opportunity. This course turned out to be the most rewarding teaching experience of my career.”

Exploration Seminar students mugging in front of a statue in Rome.

Exploration Seminar students mugging in front of a statue in Rome.

Balick’s seminar was based in Rome, at the UW’s Rome Center. Titled “Cosmology and Controversy,” the seminar focused on the influence of culture on scientific models and vice versa, with particular emphasis on Galileo.

“Galileo started modern science,” explains Balick. “Before Galileo, ‘scientific’ knowledge was largely handed down without critical evaluation, confirming what the Bible taught us. With Galileo, science and empiricism split loose from theology. That’s where the drama of this course enters. It took a tectonic battle between Galileo and the Vatican to break science free from dogma.”

Balick’s seminar included visits to sites where Galileo did his work, including Pisa, where his earliest physics experiments included dropping objects from the leaning tower. Joined by a professor from the University of Pisa, the class visited Galileo’s birthplace, the leaning tower, and the lecture room where Galileo’s scientific career took root.

Students enter the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo.

Students enter the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo. Media credit: Bruce Balick

In Florence, the class viewed Galileo’s telescope. At the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo near Rome, the group viewed nearly original editions of the famous books of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton—books that shaped our culture and were tools of learning in their time—and explored the modern but still unresolved issues left by Galileo’s work.

The course, open to all UW students, attracted scientists, historians, musicians, and others. “This extremely curious, committed, energetic team of students made the course exciting not just for themselves but for me as well,” says Balick. “The opportunity to look at critical issues in western history from many viewpoints was a thrill for every one of us.” 

An equally diverse group of students signed up for Bruce Nelson’s seminar, “Volcanism and Environment of the Canary Islands,” which was held on the islands of La Palma and Tenerife, off the coast of Africa. Nelson, professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), planned the seminar after co-teaching an introductory course on volcanoes. 

“I got such a good response to the course from freshmen and non-majors,” says Nelson. “Volcanoes just make science so accessible. It’s easy for students to visualize the process. You see a lava flow and it’s not hard to imagine the lava actually flowing. Many other geological processes happen over millions of years, which is much harder to grasp.”

But why travel all the way to the Canary Islands? Nelson, who has been doing research there for four years, explains that the region is home to some of the Earth’s largest and best exposed volcanoes. 

“Another plus is that students get to experience a different culture while studying geological processes,” says Nelson. “I’m a real believer in getting students to have a cultural experience outside of the U.S. During the seminar, they were right in the middle of Spanish culture, living in little villages.”

Students collect samples at the emission vent of the 1949 eruption on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands

Students collect samples at the emission vent of the 1949 eruption on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. Media credit: Jennifer Locke

For Jennifer Locke, the seminar had an additional benefit: spending time with her professor. “I became more comfortable and felt more able to bring up questions that I wouldn’t normally raise in a classroom setting,” says Locke. “We had a lot of time in the car or during meals to have great discussions about things that we’d seen or done during the day.”

Locke is an ESS major, but many students were non-majors. Nelson walked through basic concepts with non-majors while ESS majors completed short research projects. 

“I found a great research project that I’ll be able to work on during this entire school year,” says Locke. “Hopefully I’ll get a senior thesis out of it.” By the end of the seminar, all participants—including non-majors—made observations and created maps to interpret the geological processes that might have occurred. 

Students in Anu Taranath’s seminar, “Explorations on Cultural Studies and Justice in India,” faced very different challenges. The seminar was held in Bangalore, India, where Taranath, an English Department lecturer, had already offered a quarter-long course through the UW’s CHID Program. Taranath warmed to the idea of the shorter seminar when she realized it might be some students’ only opportunity to learn about India. 

“I wanted to see how we could do the course in one month,” says Taranath, who nevertheless had students meet weekly for almost two months prior to the seminar to intellectually prepare them for the experience.

After arriving in Bangalore, Taranath’s group engaged in difficult conversations—in conjunction with local non governmental organizations (NGOs)—about the ways that globalization has meant different things for different segments of the Indian population. 

“Learning about inequality and changing social structure in a classroom environment is one thing, but engaging with such issues in person in a new cultural context can be a profoundly altering experience,” says Taranath. “It is challenging to make sense of the inequities without falling into despair. Many of our conversations during the program engaged with this, and explored how Bangloreans are working to create meaningful lives for themselves amidst extremely challenging situations.”

Taranath says that the intellectual and emotional content of the course led to “a sense of fatigue” for both her and the students. “Our days were packed with intense experiences that stretched and challenged us,” she says. “The students talked incessantly for the whole month, continuously processing, questioning, and rethinking—exactly what critical thinking is all about.”

Taranath admits that four weeks is not much time to tackle such difficult issues, but it is enough time to inspire students’ interest in the world—and rethink their place in it.

“I think students took away from the experience a sense of humility and gratitude for the opportunities they have,” says Taranath. “Hopefully they now have a more nuanced and complicated understanding of one small region of the world, and the awareness that every region is just as complicated.”

Exploration Seminars are a joint endeavor between the UW College of Arts and Sciences, Office of International Programs and Exchanges, and Comparative History of Ideas Program.