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  April 4, 2000

New Interdisciplinary Class Combines
Learning and Travel

While many of their peers were sunning themselves on beaches in Florida or Cancun, a group of nearly 40 UConn students traveled to New Mexico and Arizona during spring break in pursuit of a more educational experience.

The trip was part of a new interdisciplinary class, led by geology professors Tony Philpotts and Randolph Steinen and open to students in any major.

After six weeks of lectures in Storrs on the geology, archaeology, anthropology and art of the southwestern United States, the students had the opportunity to sample these topics at first hand. "For me it was an example of how learning should be," says Trevor Tebbs, assistant director of the honors program and a graduate student in gifted and talented education, who accompanied the group. "We learned by doing and seeing and listening and feeling - all those things came together."

In the space of just 10 days, the students hiked in the Grand Canyon, toured ancient archaeological ruins at Chaco Canyon, encountered petroglyphs - drawings chiseled into rock - and a petrified forest - trees that have turned to stone; visited the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and a summer ranch where O'Keeffe did many of her paintings; and observed life on a Navajo Indian reservation.

The Grand Canyon was the highlight of the tour.

"The most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life was sunset at the Grand Canyon," says Lizabeth Fuchs, a third semester honors student majoring in anthropology. "It was phenomenal."

Dorothy Puzio, a junior in the honors program who is taking a double major, says she was in awe of the landscape, with its mountains and vast open spaces. "I was blown away by the Grand Canyon," she says. She adds that the experience helped her to understand the Navajo Indian philosophy of being connected with the land: "It was very spiritual."

The trip gave the students an insight into the interconnections between subject areas that might have seemed unrelated in an academic setting.

"I learned just how amazing geology is and how much it can be responsible for," says Marsha Lidzbarski, a junior majoring in geophysics. "I had never seen this type of geology before."

Fuchs, the anthropology major, says she observed the impact of geology on art. "I didn't realize how much I was going to see a connection between learning about Georgia O'Keeffe and geology. I look at her paintings and they mean so much more to me now that I've been out there. I'm able to see how the geology affected her art."

During the field trip, each of the students was required to keep a journal. Now that they're back, says Philpotts, they must prepare a project on some aspect of the trip. Most will produce a written report, but half-a-dozen honors students are developing a CD-ROM that will attempt to give a comprehensive portrait of the trip.

The students say that having the lectures as preparation and faculty as guides made the trip more meaningful.

"Professors Philpotts and Steinen helped us understand the rock formations around us," says Puzio, who is majoring in French and economics and had not taken geology classes before. "They would stop in front of a rock that we would have passed by otherwise, and explain it." Steinen says it was seeing how much the students gained from the trip that made it all worthwhile for him.

There were other lessons the students learned too, just from being with the group, as freshmen interacted with seniors and English majors mingled with geologists, biologists and anthropologists.

Although most of the students did not know each other before the trip, by the end it was a close-knit group. "When you do something like that - where a bunch of students go on a trip and have experiences together - you form a bond. No one else knows exactly what we went through," says Puzio. Part of what the group went through was learning to cope with the unexpected - ranging from the news that only two of the six vans they had reserved were available on their arrival in Albuquerque (the company supplied six sports utility vehicles to compensate), to extremes of weather that included three days of snow.

The experiences offered a different perspective on life. "We were there 10 days, with one bag of clothes and a couple of vans of people. It made me realize how little you actually need in order to be happy," says Puzio. "It was a chance to step aside from the whole consumer network we're used to."

In some ways, she adds, the Southwest "seemed like a whole different world. But getting to know some of the people there, I came to realize that there are so many basic qualities all human beings share."

For some of the students, the trip helped clarify academic and career plans.

Fuchs says seeing Chaco Canyon, with its impressive architecture that was way ahead of its time, reinforced her decision to major in anthropology. "I had considered changing my major," she says. "The trip made me remembe r why I chose it in the first place." Lidzbarski had been planning to train as an Air Force pilot. But during a visit to the Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos - the lab where the atomic bomb was created - she discovered an opportunity to do a research internship that could lead directly to a job.

Now, instead of a military career, she says she's decided to try a different route to reach her goal of becoming an astronaut - that of research scientist: "The trip helped me make a huge life decision."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu