Earth Science Program at College of DuPage a Step Above the Competition

Earth Science Icon

By Mike McKissack

The Earth Science program at College of DuPage is providing students with crucial hands-on experiential and enhanced learning experiences that are a step above most colleges and universities.

The COD Earth Sciences program enables students to explore the fundamentals of Astronomy, general Earth Science, Geology, Hydrology and Oceanography, and Meteorology for both non-science and science majors. While available in lab and non-lab formats, the lab format offers a broad range of opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning in cutting-edge labs and through practical field experiences.

Associate Dean of Math and Physical Sciences Tom Schrader said COD’s Earth Science program is comprehensive and not limited to textbooks and theory.

“Students do much more than sit in a classroom.” he said. “The nature of the earth sciences lends itself perfectly to hands-on learning. This provides a substantial benefit to students as they see the science in action and are exposed to jobs available throughout various industries.”

Schrader said the Earth Science program at COD sets itself apart from other schools due to the fact that all of the classrooms are set up as teaching labs.

“We designed the earth science classrooms to incorporate lectures as well as hands-on lab components that are invaluable to the students,” he said. “In addition, the classrooms accommodate small class sizes, which provides more personalized attention from instructors.”

Schrader said COD’s earth science courses are designed to benefit all students.

“For science majors, these classes offer a fantastic way to gain crucial hands-on experience and critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” he said. “For non-science majors, they provide an interesting and fun way to learn about their environment while satisfying general education requirements.”

The Astronomy program at College of DuPage provides knowledge and skills in the scientific study of celestial objects, including stars, planets, comets and galaxies, as well as phenomena such as exploding supernovas, black holes and the history and expansion of the universe. Students can choose from an overview class on all areas of astronomy, lab courses that focus on either planetary astronomy or astrophysical astronomy. In addition, the program includes Honors sections of these recently updated courses each.

According to Professor of Astronomy Joe DalSanto, classroom activities include a variety of hands-on lab activities such as working with telescopes, observing the sun and the moon, and determining the distance, temperature and composition of objects found in space.

“Simple demonstrations substantially enrich and enhance a student’s grasp of astronomical concepts and add a dimension of fun to these courses,” he said. “For example, to model how a star’s rotation rate increases dramatically as it contracts, we’ll spin a student slowly in a custom chair with their limbs extended and then watch their rotation rate increase as they bring their limbs inward.”

Students also participate in field activities outside the classroom, DalSanto said, including a night observing the earth’s moon, planets like Jupiter and Saturn, binary stars, star clusters, nebulae and other objects through COD’s telescopes at a local forest preserve. Students also participate in observations with members of COD’s Astronomy Club during special astronomical events such as lunar and solar eclipses.

“These activities are a great way to relate what students learn in the classroom to actual astronomical observation and to learn how it’s done,” DalSanto said. “We also take a field trip each term to the planetarium at the Cernan Space Center to see presentations on a variety of topics and do more observation. The planetarium can simulate what the night sky looks like far away from city lights which many students will likely never get to see.”

Click here for more information about the Astronomy program at College of DuPage.

Professor of Geology Mark Sutherland said the Geology program at COD offers a variety of resources and tools designed to provide students with hands-on learning experiences, including a comprehensive collection of museum- and demonstration-quality specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils; an extensive collection of topographic and raised relief models that show the effects of tectonics and erosion on the landscape; and heavy-duty equipment for cutting, splitting and polishing specimens. The lab is also equipped with high-tech stereomicroscopes and petrographic microscopes, which enable the students to analyze the mineralogical and textural properties of samples at multiple scales.

Sutherland said the classroom learning is also enhanced by the use of online tools.

“We use Google Earth to enable virtual travel to any geologic environment to investigate the conditions leading to its development,” said Professor of Geology Mark Sutherland. “Students can even access the temporal changes in a given environment by using Google Earth’s historical satellite imagery. As a result, students can assess conditions in four dimensions and gain a deeper understanding of the role of time in geologic phenomena.”

Sutherland said that aside from the hands-on work in the classroom labs, students have also gained a broad range of geologic field experiences during trips to a variety of locations, including New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He added that many additional opportunities are hosted regularly through the Field and Experiential Learning program at COD, including excursions to Hawaii, the Canadian Rockies, Utah and Colorado to study volcanic processes, glaciology and dinosaur paleontology.

Sutherland said an important enhancement came to the program came in 2005 when COD transitioned from quarters to semesters. Through the transition, Geology Professor Joseph Filomena created two courses that together form the physical geology component at COD.

“Subdividing the curriculum into two courses allows us to take students to a deeper conceptual level than they would get in a traditional one-semester course,” Sutherland said. “Students who continue on as geology majors at transfer institutions comment on how they are better-prepared for upper-level coursework than their university peers because of their experiences in our two courses.”

Click here for more information about the Geology program at College of DuPage.

Through the Hydrology and Oceanography courses at College of DuPage, students gain the opportunity to work in a cutting-edge wet lab equipped with stream tables, bench-scale aquifer models and a state-of-the-art beach wave tank, modeled after a unit used at San Diego State University, that allows for the study of land forms resulting from oceanographic processes such as storm surges and currents.

“We bring the beach to the classroom and the students love it,” said Hydrology and Oceanography Professor Diana Strode. “It’s just not feasible to regularly take the students to a beach. With this equipment, they can observe wave erosion processes without leaving campus.”

According to Strode, COD’s Earth Science program is unique among institutions of higher learning in Illinoisbecause it offers a 100-level general education Oceanography course supported by a laboratory anda general education Hydrology course for science and non-science majors.In addition, an Honors section of the EARTH 1135 Water Science: Fundamentals of Hydrology course will be offered beginning in spring 2016.

“Hydrology courses are typically taught at the 300 level at universities and as part of a science major such as geology, hydrology, environmental science or engineering,” Strode said, noting that COD offers the opportunity for all students to study this important ecological science. “However, the solutions to contemporary water resources, water quality and storm water management challenges facing northern Illinois and other regions require the development of an informed and engaged citizenry. Water resource management is no longer the purview of only civil, geological or environmental engineers and hydrologists. The solutions to these problems will require efforts from all of us.” 

Designed to introduce students to hands-on experience in field methods, the EARTH 1135 Water Science: Fundamentals of Hydrology course features a mandatory field trip to Salt Creek. The U.S. Geological Society has historically supported the field trip by engaging students in stream monitoring at the Salt Creek Gaging Station in Elmhurst. In the past, the course has also included a trip to a deep tunnel pumping station in Chicago. Strode said she believes that the participatory studies involved in the Oceanography and Hydrology labs are crucial learning experiences for students. 

“Students tend to struggle in science classes that don’t feature hands-on engagement,” she said. “Experiences with interactive bench-scale models in the lab and with monitoring techniques in the field facilitate and enrich learning with practical skills that give COD students a competitive advantage.”

Click on the following links for more information about the Hydrology and Oceanography programs at College of DuPage.

According to Professor of Meteorology Victor Gensini, students in the Meteorology program at COD experience a program unlike any other in Illinois.

“Whether students are interested in forecasting, severe weather or more traditional atmospheric sciences, COD offers more courses and a greater variety of courses than any institution in Illinois,” he said. “Students graduate with hands-on experience that is not available anywhere else in Illinois. In fact, the courses we offer in Meteorology at COD are only offered by a handful of universities in the nation.”

First implemented by the College in 1989, COD offered the first storm-chasing courses in the nation. More than 25 years later, COD remains the only college in Illinois and the only community college in the nation to offer storm-chasing classes. During the 10-day trips, students hit the road in the College’s state-of-the-art storm chasing vans, witness phenomena forming and taking place in the nation’s storm belts, and gain vital experience in forecasting.

The program also hosts the Next Generation Weather Lab (NEXLAB), an on-campus weather forecasting laboratory whose popular webpage receives millions of hits per month and is used by the U.S. Government and the military. In spring 2015, the Meteorology program hosted its inaugural weather balloon launch.

Gensini said that given the recent hot button issue of climate change, any student can benefit from a greater understanding of the processes that shape the climate, weather and even people’s perceptions.

“Understanding weather and climate is particularly important now,” he said. “It’s critical for today’s students and the public to understand the facts in regard to climate change and how our perceptions are highly shaped by politics.”

Click here for more information about the Meteorology program at College of DuPage.

Click here for more information about the Earth Science program at College of DuPage.