Learning by the Soles of Their Feet
How would you like to spend part of your summer hiking through the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains in northern Spain with a group of friends during the day, and then retire with those friends to a beautiful hostel to swap stories while waiting for a late evening meal? Now imagine that most of your out-of-pocket costs are covered by scholarships and you receive college credit for taking this trip to one of Europe’s most beautiful destinations. Sound too good to be true? That’s how 13 undergraduate and 10 graduate students majoring in geology spent part of their summer, along with their professor and 11 alumni. The alumni participants each paid for their own food, transportation, accommodations, and airfare. For many of the students, it was their first trip overseas, and one they say they will never forget.
The Importance of Study Abroad
The College of Arts and Science strongly encourages all students to study abroad during their time at MU because it helps them experience personal growth and gain self-confidence and independence. Typically, a study abroad trip includes one or more faculty members accompanying a group of students to a country or region they have learned about in class. However, geology Assistant Teaching Professor Miriam Barquero-Molina’s study abroad trips are anything but typical; she has developed what she calls a “hybrid” model that includes undergraduates, graduate students, and, in 2019, geology alumni.
“Geology is eminently a field science,” Prof. Miriam Barquero-Molina says. “You don’t learn by the seat of your trousers, you learn by the soles of your feet."
Barquero-Molina prepares students for study abroad trips with a course in the spring semester focusing on the specific region they will visit in the summer. She organized a three-week study abroad trip to northern Spain for this summer, so students spent the spring learning about the geology of the Iberian Peninsula, the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains, and other major geologic features of the region. Students also prepared presentations to give during the field trip on topics ranging from Iberian Variscan granitoids to Jurassic dinosaurs in Spain.
“Geology is eminently a field science,” Barquero-Molina says. “You don’t learn by the seat of your trousers, you learn by the soles of your feet. It makes a huge difference for these students to go and see these things because they acquire some significance that they don’t have when you read about them in a book or someone talks about them in class.”
A panoramic shot of Lago Marbore near the Spanish border with France.
Spain was a natural choice for a trip; Barquero-Molina grew up there and did part of her undergraduate work in Spain. She led a previous study abroad trip to Spain in 2016, which allowed her to make some adjustments to improve the experience for the 2019 trip.
“I know the geography fairly well, so that allows me to program a field trip I know can work,” she says. “Communication is easy for me because I know the language, and northern Spain contains some world-class examples of geology that you couldn’t see in the United States. Plus, Spain is dirt cheap, and the weather is usually pleasant.”
A Different Perspective
The overseas trip to Spain was a new experience for most of the students in Barquero-Molina’s class, including graduate student Grace Allison, who is preparing to defend her master’s thesis in geology this semester. Her thesis emphasis is economic geology. The St. Louis native says economic geology is related to mining—focusing on how mineral deposits form and how to locate them. Allison says it was wonderful to explore the culture of northern Spain.
“It was nice to see the differences—they had recycling, composting, and electronic recycling bins on every street,” she says. “I noticed how clean it was, and everyone was very accommodating and very nice, especially when I tried to speak Spanish.”
As a geology student, Allison says she appreciates the way Barquero-Molina presented the information about the “beautiful, totally bizarre geologic structures” she encountered in Spain.
“I had no idea that the mountains in northern Spain are similar to the Smoky Mountains—it’s the same orogeny (a process in which a section of the Earth’s crust is folded and deformed to form a mountain range),” she says. “We learned about all of these geologic events before we got there, but then to actually see it—it’s very different.”
After graduation, Allison is moving to Idaho, where she has a full-time job lined up with the Boise National Forest near one of the largest mining districts in the forest, doing “exactly what my degree is in—economic geology.”
Senior geological sciences major Casey Thater says he, too, enjoyed exploring the culture of Spain.
“I like seeing other places and learning about the geology, and so I enjoyed the chance to go to Spain and hear people speak this other language even though I didn’t understand it,” he says. “I tend to chase experiences.”
It was an experience he initially wasn’t sure he could handle financially. Thater, also from St. Louis, is an Evans Scholar, a program that provides full college tuition and housing scholarships to golf caddies with financial need. He told Barquero-Molina he would love to go on the trip but wasn’t sure he could afford it, so she suggested he apply for the College of Arts and Science Global Scholars program (formerly the A&S Study Abroad Award). He applied and received the funding, and the geology department’s advisory board paid for student airfare to Spain. Thater says his trip was essentially free. “My goal is to get out of college debt-free or close to it,” he says.
Thater’s emphasis in geologic sciences is paleontology – particularly dinosaurs.
“I’m a big sucker for dinosaurs,” he says. “I always try to face my fears, and Jurassic Park really scared me as a kid, so now as an adult I want to study dinosaurs. I recently learned about a new job in paleontology called mitigation paleontology. Fossils are considered a non-renewable resource by the government, so at construction sites now someone has to come in and make sure there aren’t any scientifically significant fossils, so I’d be following construction crews and doing field work.”
One Big Family
Barquero-Molina says she invites graduate students on her study abroad trips because some may not have had the opportunity to participate during their undergraduate careers, which means she teaches a preparatory class with both undergrads and graduate students.
Prof. Barquero-Molina's class pauses for a group photo during their three-week study abroad trip to northern Spain.
“The challenge is teaching to that broad audience in the classroom, because you have to be careful not to speak over the heads of the freshmen or below the heads of grad students,” she says. “It is a needle that can be threaded, and in the field, if they do their best and pay attention, they will get as much as they can at the level they are at.”
She also extended the offer to travel to Spain to members of the Geological Sciences Development Board.
“We have a very committed alumni board who do a lot for our department,” she says. “Our department is small, and one of the ways you can boost the spirit of any organization is to make it feel more like a family.”
Barquero-Molina says the 11 alumni were fully engaged with the students during the trip, asking them about their studies in geology and sharing stories about their professional experiences.
“At dinner, I would look at the table where we had 35 people—alums and students—showing each other the photos they took during the day, and I thought it was neat because that’s not anything I’ve seen before,” she says.
Base camp: the hostel where the group shared meals and slept after a long day of hiking.
Development board chair, Larry Knox of Houston, jumped at the chance to visit Spain with a group of geology students.
“I can’t say enough good words about the trip and about how Miriam put everything together and tied the geology together going all the way across Spain,” he says. “More than anything, I walked away with an understanding that we have a top-flight bunch of students at MU. Those students I talked to could compete at an equal level with any of the people I worked with in the oil industry for 35 years.”
Board member Mary Clark, of Jefferson City, now retired from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, was equally impressed with the students she got to know on the trip.
“I talked to them about the jobs I think they are more likely to get because I’ve been in the environmental field my whole life. I told them there are jobs that are important and will make you feel good about what you do.”
Students and alumni prepare to tour of archaeological sites in northern Spain.
Clark says the group visited a Jurassic park where they saw footprints of dinosaurs; they visited the caves of Atapuerca, which contain a rich fossil record of the earliest humans in Europe; and they studied Zumaia geology along the famous Flysch Coast (the continuous rock strata is called a ‘flysch;” in Zumaia it was found to have formed over a period of over 100 million years by the crashing of the waves against the cliffs.) One of the most-interesting aspects of the trip for her was visiting Ordesa National Park in the Pyrenees Mountains, which features deep canyons and raised plateaus. She and her husband had planned to hike the region 25 years ago but had to cancel when he required surgery.
“So I got to go, and I took pictures, and I showed him everything and said, ‘See, it was just as beautiful as we thought it would be.’”
It’s a Small World, After All
Barquero-Molina is very passionate about study abroad trips, saying it’s good for people to visit other countries and other cultures and to learn how people live in different ways.
“The more you travel, the more you learn,” she says. “If we stay in our own little village and never leave the tribe, we become very insular. It’s good to experience airports and to mingle with the masses. And the opportunity to do this with a cohort of your peers adds another layer to this. The camaraderie that gets built over those three weeks is unparalleled.”
Prof. Barquero-Molina conducts class during a geology study abroad trip to northern Spain.
Knox, who lived in Poland for four years working for Amoco, says he noticed a change in the students by the end of the trip.
“I told them, ‘You will find you begin to understand the world a little better because people are basically the same everywhere, they may just go about it a little differently,’” he says. “I think this trip helped the students get a better feel for a different culture and an understanding that we don’t all see things the same way.”
Clark says the trip to Spain was a unique experience for most of the students.
“Most had never been to a foreign country, or flown a lot, or eaten in a different country,” she says. “Travel gives you a broader perspective on life.”