Study in paradise: Stanford professors turn Hawaii into a living science classroom

The best way to learn science is to actually do it. Students in the School of Earth Science's Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii spend the quarter measuring vegetation, coral reefs and volcanoes to understand the dynamics of one of the planet's most interesting ecosystems.

The second day of the fall quarter, 19 undergraduates piled into two white vans at 6:30 a.m. and began driving up the side of the largest volcano in the world, Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. The vans climbed several thousand feet in altitude, passing through tropical forests and rain clouds before reaching the day's classroom an hour later.

Decked in raingear and hiking packs, the students gathered around Peter Vitousek, a professor of biology and, by courtesy, of environmental Earth system science, as he gestured at the forest on the opposite side of a field of volcanic rock and laid out the day's activities: They would hike across miles of lava flows, each hundreds of years old, stopping along the way to sample the vegetation that grew up years after the lava had cooled.

He asked them to take a moment to form a hypothesis about what they would find, paused, and then set off down the rocky trail at a burning pace.

Emily Williams, a junior majoring in geological and environmental sciences, gave the straps of her pack a final tug and grinned. "There aren't many times that you actually get to go out and do the science that you're learning about in the classroom," she said. "This is so amazing."

Bjorn CareyPeter Vitousek lecturing

Peter Vitousek frequently punctuates his day-long field exercises with impromptu lectures of Hawaiian biology and history.

This would be the students' typical day for the next 10 weeks, as they take part in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences' Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii. The interdisciplinary program, offered every other year and now in its third installment, was designed by Vitousek as a means of helping undergrads develop a practical understanding of how to apply social and scientific research techniques. Throughout the quarter, an all-star cast of Stanford professors flies into Hawaii to teach week-long, field-based courses covering a variety of topics, including marine biology, anthropology, volcanology and environmental management.

Hawaii is an almost perfect natural laboratory. It's the world's most remote archipelago, which significantly limits the impact of outside elements – biological or cultural – and allows researchers to focus on internal dynamics of ecosystems. The islands are all formed of the same type of volcanic rock, and are generally populated by the same types of plants.

The climate varies wildly across and within the islands, though, so scientists can easily study the effects of different soils and rainfall and temperatures on plants. The anthropological history of the island is relatively young – Polynesians discovered the islands roughly 1,000 years ago – and well-documented, making it easy to interpret how the people and ecosystems adapted to one another.

"By being able to keep certain things constant, we can understand the influence of others with unmatched precision," Vitousek said. "If we want to teach students how humans and land interact, there's no place like Hawaii."

Discovering science on the edge

Speed-walking should be a prerequisite for the course. Vitousek's long stride and sure feet kept him a few car-lengths ahead of the rest of the group. To be fair, he has hiked these craggy trails for years. He grew up on the Big Island, and he is a walking encyclopedia of the island's biology and history.

Bjorn Careystudents in hawaii

Students in the Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii live and work closely together for 10 weeks, creating friendly bonds that professors say improve collaboration and the overall quality of their work.

The first week's module focused on how vegetation re-seeds a lava flow, but he stopped frequently when he heard the song of one of Hawaii's colorful native birds, or to lift a large chunk of magma to reveal a layer of charcoal scientists can use to date ancient lava flows. Or, if he spotted some native raspberries, he gathered the students and gave a quick lecture on evolution – because Hawaii doesn't have any native grazing animals, raspberry bushes there never evolved defensive thorns.

Vitousek leads the first module of the program, in which students investigate how different climates and terrain types affect the rate at which vegetation repopulates the land after a lava flow. Students hike and bushwhack their way across Mauna Loa and count plant numbers and species in two types of hardened lava flows – a'a, which is porous and rocky, and pahoehoe, which is smooth. They record the differences on lava flows ranging from 150 to 4,000 years old, and at elevations running from near sea level – where rainfall is plentiful – to 8,100 feet, where the air is much drier.

Before setting out on the day's activities, Vitousek asked the students to guess whether plants would be more plentiful on a'a or pahoehoe. The group picked a'a, because its surface provides more places for soil and seeds to collect, and Vitousek hinted that they might be surprised by what they find.

This first week is about teaching the students to observe and sample and to interpret that data. Vitousek isn't concerned so much with their results – in part because the true answer to this particular inquiry hasn't been confirmed – but whether the conclusions they reach match the data they collect. In a different section later in the quarter, they'll see the answer, and have to use statistical evidence to evaluate whether it's true.

"A lot of times we do know what's going on, but on the edge we never do, and they should have the feeling of being on the edge," Vitousek said. "And in a real way they are. If they could settle that difference between a'a and pahoehoe, they would be making a real contribution."

Bjorn Careystudents measure trees

In addition to counting plant abundance and identifying species, students measured trunk diameters at chest level as a way to estimate local biomass."

Throughout the quarter, students are treated to a rotating cast of faculty members. Biology Professor Steve Palumbi snorkels with students to investigate the effects of marine management on coral reef ecosystems. Meg Caldwell, the director of Stanford Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program, leads a workshop on issues concerning coastal management and considering the environment as a resource. Mike Wilcox, an assistant professor of anthropology, takes students to archaeological sites that illustrate features of Hawaiian culture in the past – together with Native Hawaiians who are keeping that culture alive.

Tadashi Fukami, an assistant professor of biology, is no stranger to incorporating fieldwork in his lesson plan. On campus, Fukami teaches an award-winning introductory biology laboratory with project-based lab sessions at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. In Hawaii, he teaches a week-long crash course in community ecology, in which students work in different "kipuka" – islands of forest that were in the line of a lava flow but somehow avoided being covered by lava – and investigate how kipuka size, proximity to other kipukas and the presence of invasive species affect the number of plant and animal species present.

Like the introductory course he teaches on campus, the module is heavy on data collection and analysis. But tackling these tasks in the round-the-clock environment of the Wrigley Field Program opens the door to learning even more important skills, Fukami said.

"There's no single correct way of analyzing data. It depends on the specific questions they ask, and there's no single best or most interesting question," he said. "By having them talk to each other, they realize there are different ways of looking at the same data set. By thinking these options through and supporting each other, I think that makes their project more interesting and more creative and more resourceful, and this really comes from them spending so much time together, and living together for a quarter."

Video by Bjorn Carey

Nicole Bennet-Fite (vocals) and Erica Knox (ukulele), undergraduate students in Stanford's Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii, perform Jack Johnson's "Better Together."

Paul Segall, a professor of geophysics, recently witnessed the effectiveness of their teamwork first hand when leading a session on volcanology. He took the class to a dormant fissure that had last flowed molten magma in 1969. Lava often "splashes" out of this type of fissure, creating a hardened, clotted ridge along each side of the crack. In this particular fissure, however, the ridge occurred on only one side; Segall challenged the students to explain why.

After inspecting lava flow patterns in the area, and how the lava had run over and around plant life, the group arrived at the correct answer. Although the ground appeared to be flat, the hardened lava sloped very slightly away from the fissure.

"The lava clots on the downhill side were carried away as if on a conveyor belt, and on the uphill side, they weren't, creating the ridge," he said. "The observation doesn't conform to what you'd expect, but they put it together as a team, and I was very impressed because of the extreme sublety of the field evidence."

As the quarter progresses, and the students become better versed in field research techniques, these types of mysteries are solved more and more quickly.

"They come here in a new setting. They work very hard and interactively and thoughtfully," Vitousek said. "Through the quarter they develop new confidence in that. Three days ago, I don't think they could have seen themselves sampling plants on lava flows and interpreting the data, but now they're doing it! This is inside them, they just haven't had a chance to exercise it before."

A natural student experience

Nearly 40 students applied for the Wrigley Field Program, also known as Stanford Earth Systems in Hawaii, this year. The 15-credit program self-selects for nature lovers, but it is not constrained to biology or earth systems majors, said program coordinator Sara Cina. Several engineering majors have passed through the program and have found that it provided a unique perspective on their core studies.

Bjorn Careystudents analyze data

After two days of counting and measuring vegetation across various types of lava flows, students break into groups to analyze the data.

Hunter Irvin is a junior majoring in product design, and he was attracted to the program as an opportunity to experience heavy data collection outside of an urban environment and to gain a better appreciation for how different Earth, ecology and human systems interact.

"In Hawaii, I'm refining the field techniques, and I'm get better understanding of what types of questions to ask, what types of data are easy and hard to gather, whether taking a particular approach is sustainable, and learning how these insights really shape your perspective as you're refining the front end of the experiment," Irvin said. "I'm really interested in design with respect to how humans interact with the natural environment, and this experience has really gotten me closer to what that looks like in the field."

On the other end of the spectrum, Emily Williams, a junior majoring in geological and environmental sciences, has spent her past few summers assisting in volcanology fieldwork in the western United States. The opportunity to augment that experience with a series of lectures was too good to pass up.

"I love being outside, and I love doing field research," Williams said. "I really wanted to participate in this program because it's such a great opportunity to learn something new, and then ask scientific questions for yourself and really discover, for instance, 'Why does this lava flow look different than another?' You develop a whole different way of thinking, and it's such an exciting way to learn."

Elise DeBuysser, BS '13, MA '14, enjoyed her time in the program so much that she returned this year as a teaching assistant. The hands-on learning experience, both as a student and an instructor, is so conducive to learning, she said, because you can see and touch what you're trying to understand. Later, back on campus, when studying the different chemical bonds that occur in soil, she thought back to a time in Hawaii when she felt sticky soil squish between her fingers.

"From an academic perspective, instead of memorizing and saying, 'I get it,' it puts these connections together for why things happen, and I feel like I truly understand it," said DeBuysser, whose degrees are in earth systems. "It was life-changing as a student."

Switching up the focus of study every week kept her on her toes and feeling more engaged with the lecture content than ever before. "I felt like an elementary kid again, and I was a sponge that just wanted to learn everything, which is something we tend to lose track of through a conventional classroom environment," she said.

After nine hours of trekking across hardened lava, the students climbed into the vans to head home. Conversation still buzzed as they chugged water, picked leaves out of each other's hair and assessed the scrapes accrued while scrambling through shoulder-high brush.

"That was so much harder and more intense than anything I had prepared myself for," said Amy Tomasso, sitting near the back of the van. "I can't wait to get back at it. I can't believe how cool it is that we get to spend the quarter here." Her new friends nodded in agreement.

This level of exhaustion will become their new normal, Vitousek said. The Wrigley Field Program is particularly grueling. The days start with sunrise and end with sunset. Each module involves at least a couple of days in the field, capped with evening lectures and team or individual projects. The students typically get only one day off between modules, but no one seems to mind.

"I've had students in previous years say that this is the most important course they've taken at Stanford," Vitousek said. "They learn a lot, and partly it's that, but partly it's that they learn how good they can be together. They learn how strong they are as a group and how much they can gain from each other and how much they have within themselves."