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Two-week summer course turns a river into a classroom

By Morgan-Lee Fowler
On March 8, 2011

The smell was almost unbearable as the students paddled their way down the Connecticut River. Said one student, it was "getting so strong it was like you could taste it."

The pungent odor came from a decomposing dead moose that "was about twice the size of normal and ready to explode." Had the rotting moose "exploded it would have been pretty bad."

This is one of many stories that students tell about the Connecticut River course, which begins the week after graduation and involves traveling on the river, doing ecology and geology research.

"The course is ID110 (inter disciplinary) because it's a combination of geology and ecology at the most basic level," said Richard Dunn, professor and chair of geology and environmental science. "It's a two-week course and it (starts) right away, we squeeze it in between the end of the year and the normal summer session."

Students spend four days on campus, devoting eight hours in the classroom and plus time outside, according to Dunn. They then head off to the river, just below the Canadian border.

Most of the class time is spent "trying to get everybody up to some basic level of understanding of geology and some ecology," Dunn said.

Ryan Robertson, 23, a junior communications major from Northfield, Vt., said two summers ago he heard about the course, finding out that it was a quick way to get a science requirement out of the way even though it was a demanding course.

"It's an intro-level four-credit science course and we stuff 15 weeks into two. At first it seems like it shouldn't be OK to do but because the students are with us 24 hours a day they put in (the) equivalent to 15 weeks," Dunn said.

The professors make sure that students can swim and know the basics of canoeing.

"They made everyone go to the pool and see if they if they could swim," said Richard Macris, 22, a senior communications major from Ridgefield, Conn., who took the course based on its reputation.

Some students have never been canoeing and because of this "we put a canoe in the pool and we go over information and everybody gets in the canoe; each person has to take a turn in the canoe," Dunn said.

Students also take a practice day on the Winooski River in Montpelier.

The students are able to "get a feel for what it's like to be out on the canoes," said Dunn, and even go through some rapids.

For the actual trip, "We pack a tremendous amount of scientific equipment, everything from shovels to microscopes," along with the students' personal gear, camping gear and a set-up kitchen, Dunn said.

"We have the equipment for traveling. We have the canoes, jackets and paddles, we have equipment for the kitchen and a dozen big water jugs and stoves," said David Westerman, Charles A. Dana professor of geology and the associate vice president for research. "We have shelters that can go up quickly" and can fit 10 to 12 people.

Food is provided on the trip so there is not much else that students have to bring.

Cooking and cleaning play an important role in this course and everyone must pitch in to help with chores.

"I actually ate better than I did at school on this trip," Macris said. "All of us have to pitch in with cooking and cleaning because it is im

portant for us to do."

"We buy all the food and we eat a combination of chicken stir fry one night and steak dinner another night and then we also have burgers and dogs and salad every night," Westerman said.


Throughout the day students explore several ecology and geology sites.

"Every day we (the students) do at least do one ecology site and that's when we break everyone up into these teams and on the first day your team might do water chemistry," which sometimes consists of collecting water from the streams, Dunn said.

The next day students rotate and some may "collect micro organisms from the river and look at the health of the river based on the micro organisms," Dunn said.

Students "(calculate) the velocity of the stream and another group calculates the width of the river and we measure (it by) surveying (which is) a technique where they have to do some triangulation and math to figure out the width of the river," Dunn said. The two groups that work on these calculations get together and "calculate how much water is going by," known as the discharge.

Students are required to write lab reports each day. They correspond with each other about what they learned and then individually prepare a report, according to Westerman.

"One (site) is the ecology test site where (students) break up in teams to get data and then the other is a geology lab and that's what (the students) write their report about every night," Westerman said. In the morning they must hand in the report to receive their breakfast, Dunn said.

According to Macris, it was really up to the student if they chose to get work done. Students could "joke around with people, it was really all self responsibility."


The trip is not all schoolwork. There is free time to enjoy the outdoors, like going fishing.

"My tent mate and I every night would watch (the movie) ‘Step Brothers.' It was on my cell phone so every night we would watch part of it before we went to bed," Robertson said. "We saw a moose crossing the river down the way and some people falling in, it was pretty good experience seeing all that."


After returning to school students are required to take tests and display their findings. They write an ecology paper which includes eight days worth of data.

Students must "take a final examination which is like a typical test" and "then (the next day) in the afternoon they have three hours to bring in all their graphs they have been making all along their trip and all the data and they have three hours to write a technical report," Dunn said. They receive a grade every day so there is a "wide array" of things that students are graded on.

Most students recommend taking the class.

"I would recommend the class if you like that fast pace kind of stuff," said Robertson. "I mean it's not easy but it's a fun way to get a science lab out of the way."

Some students going into this course were not fond of the outdoors and had to struggle through but in the end it "might actually be a bigger deal than someone who is very comfortable with (the course)," Dunn said. Those students feel that they survived and accomplished something amazing and have a sense of the pride.

"I would never want to say that every student should take all their science classes in two weeks because that is not the case," Dunn said. "If the course works, it's a huge bonding experience" for the students and also a great learning experience.

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