January 9, 2008

The Evolution of an Island

Nancy Giang ’11 shares her experiences in her First-Year Seminar, ‘Islands and Isolation’

Last semester, Nancy Giang ’11 (North Wales, Pa.) took the First-Year Seminar (FYS) “Islands and Isolation” taught by David Sunderlin, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences. The class explored the geology, ecology and biodiversity of all types of islands and also featured a field trip and various other hands-on activities. Giang elaborates on how this course has given her a new outlook on learning and a fresh confidence in her learning abilities.

Have you ever created your own exam and taken it? I certainly hadn’t until I luckily was given the chance to take “Islands and Isolation,” a First-Year Seminar (FYS) course taught by Professor David Sunderlin, who let us call him Dave.

My favorite aspect of this course was it allowed you to think beyond what is expected of the professor and instead meet your own peers’ standards. Frequently we split up into pairs and were let loose to make our own questions that required deep thought and analysis. Because of this unique opportunity, each of us became more aware of the level of intellect and various ways of thinking our classmates demand of us. In turn, this process necessitated the expansion of our insights into all facets of the subject and raised the expectations we had of ourselves.

This course offered not only a trial of the intellect but also the fun and sense of accomplishment when applying what we learned to the real world outside the confines of classroom doors. Each FYS offers a field trip, and for this course we explored a man made lake in the Poconos called Lake Wallenpaupack. The particular area we analyzed was Epply Island.

During our day on this island, we characterized the similarities and differences between it and the mainland, eyeing and estimating the number of animal species we found, its flora, its geological makeup, and its scarcity of certain resources. We hypothesized possible scenarios the island could have gone through in its process of development by utilizing all knowledge we gained in the course and realized the extent of our abilities.

In addition to employing our knowledge in the physical world, we were able to simulate experiments in which we tested the number of species an island can hold in accordance with its size, distance, and orientation (landscape or portrait) in relation to the mainland. These tests were done with just skewers, hemp string, disposable coasters, and our coaster-throwing abilities. We threw coasters from set distances onto the “islands” that were sectioned off by the hemp string around skewers stuck into the rocks. Our results, impressively, nearly matched exactly what we expected.

It was somewhat of a revelation to know that such a simple setup could yield results that would occur in the complex natural world. Such an experience informed us that despite how complicated we may think a process is, we can always attempt to break it down into its essentials and use what knowledge and resources we have to test our hypotheses – a principle that is invaluable to whatever we choose to pursue later on.

Even though simulations with our imitation islands can be useful, we have much technology at our disposal today and would be at a loss if we did not use it. In the computer lab of the geology department, we used a simulation program called Ecobeaker to design our own setup of islands that would be inhabited by pixelated birds and shrubbery.

The program included various components, such as the speed and visual range of certain species, the amount of energy gained from each food source, and other factors that occur in the natural world, but were unable to be accounted for in our disposable coasters experiment. By using this program, we were able to easily perceive what would happen without spending a great amount of time setting up what we envisioned. Also, we had the opportunity to be exposed to current technological tools that other researchers use in the field.

My experience in this FYS course truly allowed me to see what learning at the collegiate level is all about. It’s not just reading books, writing papers, and then taking exams to show what you remembered. It’s putting the ideas you have into play while at the same time applying the knowledge gained in class to make viable experiments and setups to demonstrate your way of mastering the concepts you learn. All of this would not have been possible if I weren’t given the chance to take such a course that constantly demanded insightful analysis but yet allowed for the simple application to the real world.

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