This summer, the Big Island of Hawaii provided a unique field experience to 11 Randolph-Macon
College students by giving them the opportunity to view Earth’s forces in all their
This field-based travel course, The Geology of Hawaii, focused on what happens when
moving magma, seething at temperatures of 2200° F about 50 miles below the ocean’s
floor, drags thin, “floating” oceanic crust (lithosphere) with purpose and majesty
across a stationary hot plume of rising magma.
“The Big Island of Hawaii sits right on top of magma that rises up through cracks
in the lithosphere like the rising blobs inside of a hot lava lamp,” says Geology
and Environmental Studies Professor
Michael Fenster, who, along with Tim Merrill, the director of
institutional research, led the trip. “Our main focus was to learn how geologic,
atmospheric, and oceanic processes formed the Big Island of Hawaii’s breathtaking
landscape and its features over a relatively short period of time, but we learned
a whole lot more along the way.”
Although the two-week trip focused on geologic topics such as volcanism and volcanic
products, evidence for glaciation, earthquake activity, groundwater interactions,
and coastal processes, the group couldn’t ignore the fact that they were trekking
through one of the most ecologically diverse places of the world.
“During our adventures, we explored four of the Big Island’s five volcanoes and
hiked through four of the five major climate zones of Earth, including humid rain
forests, arid deserts, temperate grasslands, and polar tundras,” says Fenster. “We
had new and beautiful vistas for us to examine at almost every turn.”
An unexpected benefit from the trip was the melding of the island’s rich culture
and Randolph-Macon’s ‘ohana (family) culture. As a four-year resident of
Hawaii, Merrill contributed another perspective for the students.
“’Ohana is a very important concept in Hawaiian culture and the locals
typically embrace those willing to learn about their home and respect its traditions,”
“On the very first day, after a breakfast of made-to-order omelets, mango, and fried
rice, we were introduced to Hawaii’s culture by two of the Big Island’s native residents,”
says Fenster, the Stephen
H. Watts Professor of Science. “In a sunny room, Manu Josiah (whose village
name is Manu o kai, meaning 'bird of the sea') and his wife Leilehua Yuen
taught us the true meaning of many aspects of their culture including aloha,
leis, and hula. For example, we learned that the hula
is the ‘Hawaiian Library of Congress’ for oral traditions. They shared music, dance,
and chants with us as well as stories and legends about the places we planned to
visit. They also discussed with us their perceptions of the harmonious relationship
between science and religion. Perhaps because of our new appreciation of Hawaiian
culture or perhaps because of Randolph-Macon’s focus on community, our group developed
bonds of ‘ohana to last a lifetime.”
Yellow Jackets in Hawaii
Below, vignettes about R-MC students provide a glimpse into the geology, ecology,
culture and climate of Hawaii along with a peek into the ‘ohana of Randolph-Macon
College’s instructors and students. The Geology of Hawaii ‘ohana included
the Kupuna (elders): Uncle Mike (Fenster), Uncle Tim (Merrill) and 11 haumana
(students): Rebecca Blader ’14, Colby Kinsella ’15,
Katherine Myers ’16, Julianne Harrington ’14,
Alise Witt ’14, Catherine Dean ’15, Elizabeth
Hebert ’15, Kaitlyn Grundy ’14, John Schutte ’14,
Brandon Boswell ’15, and
Maxwell Wyndorf ’14.
Catherine “Casey” Dean ’15
Casey Dean '15, a native of Morristown, New Jersey, says her Hawaii
adventure was unforgettable.
“I’ll never forget the people I met while traveling,” says Dean, who, like her classmates,
kept a journal during the trip. “Going into the trip I only knew three of my fellow
students, but we all became friends by the end of the journey, and we even referred
to our group as ‘ohana.’ We became a family in two short weeks.” Dean was
especially affected by the Hawaiians’ connection to their surroundings.
“The Hawaiian culture had a special aspect to it: They see themselves as part of
nature, not separate from it,” she explains. “It made us really think about our
geology studies and made us aware of the importance of respecting our surroundings.”
On campus, Dean is a member of the
Equestrian Team, a sister of
Alpha Gamma Delta, a member of Alpha Phi Omega,
and the junior sports editor for the
Yellow Jacket newspaper. She is also a seasoned traveler. During January
Term (J-term) 2012, she traveled to London, Paris,
Berlin and Brussels in conjunction with Political
Science Professor Tom Badey’s course,
Major Governments of Western Europe, and in summer 2012 she traveled
to Iceland in conjunction with Fenster’s course, the
Geology of Iceland. Her advice to new Yellow Jackets?
“Make the most of your four years at R-MC,” she says. “Spend hours in the
library, talk with friends, go to
sports events, and travel—even
if you’ve never before been on a plane. In short, make some memories.”
Julianne Harrington ’14
“I am not really a ‘science’ person, so I knew that taking a class that included
hands-on activities would be the best way for me to learn,” says
economics/business and French major Julianne
Harrington ’14 of her decision to take the Geology of Hawaii course.
“I also love to travel and thought that this trip would be an experience like no
Harrington’s before-the-trip prediction—“I expected to study volcanoes and rocks
for ten days,” she says—was replaced with awe-inspiring discoveries about Hawaii,
and about herself.
“I had never taken a geology course before so I knew nothing about the subject,”
she says. “Although we did study volcanoes and rocks, we also studied much, much
more, including the Hawaiian culture. We visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,
hiking over craters and through forests. At Lava Tree Park, we studied the evolution
of lava—how it encases trees and forms cones of lava around them. By studying this
dried lava, we were able to identify what direction the lava flow may have come
from as well as what kind of lava was present during these eruptions.”
Harrington’s journal entries reflect her sense of wonder and her eye for detail.
We went to a geothermal pool—a pool created by the ocean. This pool contained ocean
water and was encased by rocks blocking the ocean, leaving just a small opening
for the water to flow through. We swam and ate lunch, and then we prepared to embark
on what we were told would be a very strenuous hike over a lava flow. This dried
lava flow, located in the Puna district, occurred about three years ago. We were
required to wear long sleeves and long pants due to the fact that if we fell on
the lava, our skin could become injured. We were told it would be a strenuous hike,
but I did not realize how difficult (mentally and physically) this hike would truly
be. Dried lava flows look like deserts; there is nothing to see but black, swirly
rock- like substances for miles. The dried lava is very bumpy and has cracks in
it, so it was important that we look while walking to avoid falling. After about
two miles of hiking, we reached a lava flow that extended down a cliff into the
ocean. This was such a memorable moment for me…it was also very memorable because
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so excited as Professor Fenster was when we
got glimpses of the red, steamy lava flowing into the ocean.
Harrington wrote that her favorite part of the trip started off at the Tropical
Here, we had free time to walk around and look at the flowers and plants as well
as the amazing ocean. After this, we went to Akaka Falls. My favorite part of the
day was our visit to Waipi’o Valley. Before heading there, we learned background
information about the Valley and its inhabitants. We learned that the Valley did
not have a large population, as a tsunami many years ago destroyed much of the area.
To get to the Valley, it was first necessary to hike down a cliff, which had a 25
% incline. During the hike, we stopped every few minutes to hammer samples of rock
out of the side of the cliff and identify them. Once we reached the bottom of the
Valley, we relaxed at the beach. The best and most challenging part of the day was
the hike back up the Valley. It was very strenuous but it showed our strength as
a group: We supported each other and finally made it to the top of the cliff!
The trip to Hawaii was Harrington’s third study-abroad experience. She says the
best souvenirs she brought back from Hawaii are the kind that don’t fit in a suitcase.
“The connections I made will last a lifetime,” she says. “It was hard to say goodbye
to each other when the trip was over and we hope to have many reunions during the
coming year. I also formed a new relationship with nature as I became more respectful
Harrington, who serves as an orientation leader,
tour guide, and Higgins Academic Center (HAC)
mentor, speaks from the heart when she offers advice to fellow classmates.
“Take advantage of all the amazing opportunities Randolph-Macon College has to offer,”
she says. “Study abroad! It’s the most amazing experience you can have, and
R-MC offers study-abroad programs that can’t be found anywhere else.”
The Adventure of a Lifetime
“Most of the students echoed Julianne and Casey’s sentiments about this travel course
experience,” says Merrill. “Excerpts from their field notebooks and journals indicated
that the course had a major impact on their knowledge of geology and cultural awareness.”
One student noted: Hawaii is truly such a unique place; both the culture and the
geology are one of a kind and are so intertwined it is amazing. I have learned so
much about the Hawaiian geology and culture and could not have asked for a better
group to do it with.
Merrill says that another traveler noted as a highlight a discussion held at the
Punalu’u black sand beach that touched on the relationship between local culture,
religion and science: The beauty of things lies within the eyes of the beholder.
What you’re taught and surrounded with influences what you view nature as. The Hawaiian
culture teaches [us] to respect and take care of the environment like it’s a higher
“As a fitting summary to the experience another different student included in her
journal a Hawaiian phrase that captures much of the trip’s purpose,” says Merrill.
She wrote, I ka nānā no a ‘ike: By observing, one learns.”