Teaching Geology Through Climbing

Posted by on Jan 26, 2017

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A map of the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province in Italy (Source: Gigillo83/Creative Commons).

Learning by doing can be an effective educational tool. Irene Bollati et al. discovered this to be true while researching climbing as a way to educate students about earth science in the glacier-rich Italian Alps. Their findings were featured in a recent article in the Journal of the Virtual Explorer, in which they describe how climbing teaches young people about processes like weathering and glacial retreat.

For their research, Bollati et al. looked specifically at the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola Province in the western Italian Alps, where there is a long tradition of mountaineering. As the most northern province in Italy’s Piedmont region, the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola is located in a subduction zone in which the Eurasian and African plates collide. Mountain chains like the Alps are an ideal location for education, because they contain geosites, places where many geological and geomorphological processes are exposed in a relatively small area. By finding these locations on which to climb, younger generations can be inspired to learn and become more invested in the preservation of the site’s features.

Finding geosites typically has one of two goals, according to Bollati et al. The first is geosite conservation when the site is rare and at risk of degradation. The second is earth science dissemination in cases where the site is valuable for educational purposes. In the latter, it is important that the site’s usage for educational purposes not put its scientific integrity at risk. In their study, Bollati et al. focused on methodology to find the most valuable geosites which meet both goals.

Specifically, the researchers focused on a pilot educational project, in which they assessed 100 13 and 14-year-old students from four schools about 80 km from the study region. The project sought to identify the most suitable climbing locations and best mountain cliffs on which students could learn about earth science and geoheritage. According to Bollati et al., geoheritage includes earth features and processes that should be sustained, conserved or managed for their natural heritage value. To determine these regions, Bollati et al. relied on eight major criteria including accessibility, rock cliff quality, and the presence of evident and active hazards. In total, they analyzed 59 crags using the eight major criteria, further dividing those crags into sub-locations.

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The subduction zones in Europe (Source: Woudloper/Creative Commons).

In total, the study pinpointed 14 sub-locations or “geodiversity” sites in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province best suited for hiking and climbing. Subduction-collision zones like the Alps are excellent examples of geodiversity sites due to the many different types of rocks found within narrow areas. “Geodiversity,” a term first introduced in 1993, can be understood as the equivalent of biodiversity for geology, according to a paper by Murray Gray. It includes all geological, geomorphological, and soil features. It also encompasses their properties, relationships, and systems, according to Bollati et al.

The researchers defined three categories of geodiversity: extrinsic geodiversity (geodiversity of a region in comparison with other regions), regional intrinsic geodiversity (within a region), and geodiversity of a single site. The best examples of these processes and resulting features are called “geodiversity sites.” The most valuable of these for geoconservation are referred to as “geosites” and form the “geoheritage” of a region.

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A view of the Italian Alps (Source: A. Duarte/Flickr).

In the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province, students can observe several important signs of glaciation. For example, rock slopes along the Ossola Valley and in the tributary valleys demonstrate glacial modeling. In addition, the researchers used rock samples and virtual methods to introduce the students to the three major rock families, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, as well as the geomorphology of the cliffs.  

Bollati et al. also used videos of climbers along three selected routes to help students learn where climbers were finding foot- and hand-holds. The hope was that students would become curious and ask questions about how the rocks formed. However, the authors found that the videos served better as support than as a substitute for the hands-on learning about earth science that climbing provides. By physically climbing the peaks, students learn first-hand how different climates and rock types impact the Earth.

In their study, Bollati et al. confirmed that students can more effectively learn by doing, understanding earth science better by identifying the more suitable locations on which to climb. Their findings encourage future generations interested in geology and conservation to find inspiration while climbing mountains.

 

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