York U students participate in a life-changing experiential learning opportunity

For a group of Toronto high school students, travelling to Iceland with students and faculty from York University to prowl around volcanoes was truly the experience of a lifetime.

The trip, which took place last spring, was organized by Kathy Young, a geography professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) and was part of her advanced fourth-year field course for geography students.

Kathy Young

Young contacted Karen Stelling (MSC ’04, BEd ’06), a former grad student who worked with Young and was now a teacher at Riverdale Collegiate Institute (RCI) in downtown Toronto, to extend an invitation to her  students and fellow teachers to come along on the excursion to Iceland. With the help of $5,000 in funding from Global and Community Engagement in LA&PS, the field course became the project, “Impact of Volcanoes on the Hydrology of Snow & Icy Landscapes, Iceland.” The project, which showcased York University’s expertise, incorporated the advanced field expedition to Iceland with a special outreach to the high school students. It took place May 12 to 23 and paired students and teachers from York University’s Department of Geography with teachers and students from RCI.

The students hike along the geothermal area of Gunnuhver hot spring

The high school students clasp hands with York U students to traverse the North American and Eurasia tectonic plates

The group hikes across the Eldfell crater

The expedition to Iceland provided students with an opportunity to learn about volcanoes, how they shape the land and the impact of volcanic eruptions on the glaciers and surrounding landscape. Iceland Project collaborator, Professor Kristinn Guðjónsson, a geologist and volcano specialist, led the expedition with Young. Guðjónsson used a range of teaching styles, including, night time lectures, lectures in churches, lava tubes, tours and hikes on glaciers, volcanoes and moraine peaks to share his knowledge about Iceland, including its culture and politics to students.

“Along, the way, we visited a geothermal plant to learn about ‘green technology’ and a museum where students learned about the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption and its societal impacts, including meeting the farmer who established the museum,” said Young.

Highlights of the trip included a jeep ride to the summit of the new Eyjafjallajökull crater, a swim in glacial water, and hiking in Skaftafell National Park, where the group experienced a spectacular glacial landscape and saw evidence of climate change. The expedition, which followed the southern coastline of Iceland, allowed York U students time to carry out “mini” field projects ranging from climatological, biogeographical type studies to ones about water quality of rivers and wetland ponds. The York students mentored the RCI students by involving them in data collection and analysis.

Professor Kristinn Guðjónsson talks to students about geothermal energy

“Preliminary group presentations took place our last night in the field, while final and polished presentations were provided at York U a week later,” said Young. “York U students also submitted final papers with topics ranging from climate change and the disappearance of glaciers to social and environmental impacts of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Following the field expedition, students spent a few days in the town of Reykjavík soaking up its culture and history. Before the flight home, students were treated to the warm, thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon.”

For some RCI students, this field trip was an introduction to York University and its unique approach to experiential education; several of RCI students are now first-year students at York University, said Young, noting that word has spread and now other Ontario high school teachers are keen on conducting future joint expeditions. Young praised RCI teacher Karen Stelling for securing funds through scholarships for low-income students to participate in the excursion to Iceland.

“Again, many thanks for the LA&PS support for this initiative,” said Young. “It was a fantastic project and I am so proud that we were able to pull it off for all of our students!”

The RCI students also took time to thank Young, the York U students and the University for the opportunity to learn outside the classroom. In a group letter, they wrote: “Thank you so much for making this amazing experience possible! We appreciate all the hard work and effort that you put in so that we’d have a fun and educational trip. We learned so much from you and your students, and from the field studies we did together. Having this opportunity to go to Iceland was an amazing privilege, and truly unforgettable. The things we learned and the stuff we did from climbing Eyjafjallajökull to the Black Sand Beach will stay with us forever. From the bottom of our hearts, we’d like to thank you for your kindness and for the greatest field trip ever!”

For her part, Young said that field trips such as the one to Iceland provide a practical and  experiential learning opportunity with maximum impact. The trip also served to connect York University and the Department of Geography with the wider community and created opportunities for all the students to apply ideas and theories in the field and to actively participate in their own learning.

Such trips change lives, said Young, noting her decision to pursue graduate studies in geography was influenced by a similar experience in 1984. “Because of that experience,” said Young. “I became an Arctic scientist.”