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Insights in the Arctic

A pilot course signals a bright future for U of I above the Arctic Circle.

Arctic program

When polar bear drills are part of the class schedule, you know that studying abroad has just been taken to a new extreme. And it has—the University of Illinois is bringing students and faculty to the Arctic Circle.

Faculty are organizing a second class in the land of ice and never-setting sun after the first one, called “Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic,” was a resounding success last summer.

During that course, faculty and 17 students from the Colleges of LAS and Engineering traveled overseas for five weeks to study and research in a variety of places, from museums in Stockholm to frigid mountainsides just a dozen degrees of latitude below the North Pole. They were joined by faculty and students from Sweden.

It’s the first course initiative to emerge from a new trans-Atlantic and interdisciplinary collaboration, called Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational Research Exchange (INSPIRE), between the U of I and primarily three universities in Stockholm.

“This Arctic course is a key example of what this partnership has been able to do for both University of Illinois students and faculty who’ve been able to go to the Arctic and pursue research that they otherwise might not have been able to do,” says Anna Stenport, professor of Scandinavian studies and faculty liaison for the partnership.

The class was highlighted by a field site visit to Svalbard, a beautiful remote archipelago north of Norway that has become the site of extensive international Arctic research.

“Nobody had ever done anything like that before, so simply being at Svalbard was a thrill for all of us,” says Mark Safstrom, a lecturer of Swedish and Scandinavian Studies at U of I, who was one of three faculty on the trip.

Arctic program

The course, hosted by KTH Royal Institute of Technology, featured both class and research components, as students gathered data during the trip for research projects. Students began with several weeks of classes and site visits in Stockholm, where Safstrom and Dag Avango, a professor at KTH, taught history, culture, architecture, and politics of the Arctic region.

Many of the lessons in science came after they flew to Svalbard, where, for 10 days, Bruce Fouke, U of I professor of geology, taught students about fossils, glaciers, permafrost, and other Arctic features that they witnessed firsthand.

They also visited mines and other human settlements, as Svalbard—with its long history of whaling, mines, and research—is a melting pot of international influences.

Svaldbard is where the foreign and harsh Arctic climate became real, from a sun that never set to the threat of polar bears. To prepare for any of the potential predators, they practiced falling behind faculty who were armed with rifles during their many ventures outside the town of Longyearbyen.

Fortunately, Safstrom adds, they did not see any polar bears, which typically move further north for the summer with the receding ice. The birds were a different matter.

“We experienced another frightening encounter with Arctic terns,” read a student account by Robert Nystrom and Miriam Zarate, majors in atmospheric sciences and Earth, society, and environment, respectively, on the European Union Center’s “Across the Pond” blog that documented the trip extensively.

“These birds are extremely aggressive and will peck at your head in order to protect their territory, leaving a ‘pecking you won’t soon forget,’ according to our Swedish instructor.”

Fortunately, everyone emerged unscathed and upbeat on a trip that was otherwise filled with valuable insight.

What’s more, the program is poised to grow. Through INSPIRE, the U of I is partnered primarily with KTH, Stockholm University, and Karolinska Institute, and Stenport sees much potential in terms of future classes and joint research.

She adds that while students paid their own way to get to Stockholm, they were assisted with grants and funding from the European Commission, the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, and the LAS Global Studies program.

“We want to ensure,” Stenport says, “that the University of Illinois will be one of the universities that’s integral in training and preparing students to take additional responsibility and action when it comes to environmental change and sustainability questions.”

Note: February 1 is the deadline for students wishing to apply for the Summer 2013 class, to be held June 10-July 15. Any interested students can contact Sherry Danielson in the Study Abroad Office for information at sdaniel2@illinois.edu.

This video features commentary by Bruce Fouke, professor of geology, as he leads the study abroad class on a fossil-hunting expedition on a mountainside in Svalbard. (Produced by Online and Continuing Education-ATLAS)

By Dave Evensen
January 2013

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