Accessible Earth, the first course of its kind, will make earth sciences more accessible to students of all physical abilities and provide international research experience.
The University of Arizona course is designed to satisfy a key requirement for many geosciences bachelor’s programs: a capstone field course, often called "field camp." Such courses typically involve physical work in difficult terrain: an insurmountable barrier for many students, particularly those with disabilities, said Richard Bennett, UA professor of geosciences and the lead instructor for Accessible Earth.
Diedre Lamb, senior access consultant with the UA Disability Resource Center, said, "This is an exciting collaboration, because it’s an opportunity to create something for students who might have otherwise thought geosciences were not a possible career path."
Starting in the summer of 2016, Accessible Earth will be based in Orvieto, Italy, and will serve 10 to 20 juniors, seniors and graduate students. The location was chosen for its geologic and cultural history and to help provide all students with the academic and social benefits unique to study-abroad experiences.
"In developing this geoscience study abroad we critically assessed the curriculum, the physical environment and living arrangements in Orvieto — and even the software — to ensure as many disability-related barriers have been eliminated as possible," said Lamb, who is also an Accessible Earth instructional assistant.
Learning about earth processes by collecting rocks and studying geological formations is still a crucial part of geosciences. However, technology such as satellites permits some earth sciences research to be done solely by analyzing data with a computer.
"With modern Internet and remote sensing technologies," Bennett said, "anyone can download data and make substantial contributions to our understanding of the Earth system from just about anywhere using a common laptop computer. There are literally petabytes of data out there just waiting to be analyzed and interpreted."
Remote sensing is the practice of taking observations from a distance, usually by satellite, but also from drones, airplanes, balloons and even ground-based instruments.
Accessible Earth will extend the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, curriculum by introducing students to these new methods for conducting earth sciences research.
"This isn't your parents' geology," said professor Peter W. Reiners, head of the UA Department of Geosciences. "This is bringing some of the most exciting new technological developments to bear on some of the most critical and dynamic aspects of the Earth system and training our students in state-of-the-art computation and interpretations. It's changing how we do earth science and addressing some of the grandest challenges facing the planet."
This new inclusive study-abroad program was developed by the Department of Geosciences, the Disability Resource Center and the UA Study Abroad & Student Exchange.
Christopher Atchison, executive director of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity and an assistant professor of geoscience education at the University of Cincinnati, said, "This program is a perfect example of cross-disciplinary experts working together to develop an innovative opportunity that focuses on what students can do, rather than any disabilities. Learning experiences such as this will continue to pave the way for the future development of inclusive geoscience instruction in classrooms, laboratories and field-based learning environments."
Accessible Earth contributes to the UA’s 100% Engagement initiative, which promises all undergraduate students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in their chosen field before they graduate.
"The Accessible Earth program is a welcomed addition to our campus," said Vincent Del Casino, UA vice provost of digital learning and student engagement. "What is so exciting about the program is that it combines study abroad with the application of scientific methodologies. Students are both immersed in the culture of another place and in the everyday skills of scientific inquiry."