Chemistry Professor Stacy O’Reilly remembers looking at the other science disciplines and thinking, “They’re going places. Why can’t we?”
O’Reilly wanted Chemistry students to have the opportunity to see the world, learn from other cultures, and put their classroom education into practice—something they didn’t typically get to do because they were so busy with coursework.
That was in 2015.
Soon after, she got a call from a tour company about putting together a study-abroad trip for Chemistry students. In less than 10 months, she and colleague Michael Samide developed a course centered on Chemistry and sustainable energy in Germany and Switzerland. They took 18 students to visit two hydroelectric power plants and, by the time they left, better understood how water is used to create electricity, the finances required to build such a facility, and the economic impact a plant can have on a community.
Fast-forward three years: 87 students have taken Chemistry’s study-abroad course in various incarnations: Chemistry and Food, Chemistry and Art Conservation Science, and Chemistry and Fermentation. There are courses with embedded study tours planned out through 2021—including one for Butler alumni, employees, their families, and friends called Beer, Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate. (More at https://blue.butler.edu/~msamide/AlumniTour2020/)
“So often, our science students are so engaged in the work to finish their science degree,” O’Reilly says. “They don’t have a lot of flexibility in their schedules. One of the things we like about this program is that it’s not a full semester abroad, it’s not a full summer abroad, but it gives them a taste of international travel.”
“The language of science bridges culture,” Samide adds. “There’s a common bond they feel between cultures. I think it makes the world a little smaller for them. They feel more globally connected.”
Students who take CH418 spend the semester building their background in the subject area, the idea being that they have the scientific knowledge they need before they travel. Then, when they go overseas in early May, they can integrate the science with the culture and society they’re visiting and have conversations with experts.
Ben Zercher ’16 was among the students who went on that first study tour. When he first heard about the opportunity to study abroad, he was excited because “Chemistry can get lost in textbook learning and memorizing.”
“I wasn’t sure how they’d work chemistry into a study abroad program, but we started looking at renewable energy systems that are used around the world and I was excited for the trip because it would give the class some cultural context to the curriculum we go over,” said Zercher, now a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We moved around a lot and saw a lot of different applications of what we had learned in the course.”
Zercher said what he looks for in Chemistry are ways to better society. The study-abroad trip showed him that the United States is lagging the leading countries when it comes to renewable energy. “Maybe I can help change the cultural acceptance of science and how we apply it to renewable energy,” he said.
Heidi Kastenholz ’19, took the Chemistry and Art Conservation Science tour in 2017, which met during the spring semester to prepare the students for what they would see at conservation and research laboratories in Germany.
She said she chose to go because she’s always been interested in art and she wanted “to be able to take what I’m learning in class and see it applied to something I have a great interest in and to be able to learn and to see it in a new way.”
The experience so intrigued Kastenholz that she continued to look into conservation science. This summer, she presented a Butler Summer Institute project called “Case Studies of Reference Materials in Conservation Science.”
Kastenholz came to Butler wanting to be an optometrist. Until last summer, that was her goal.
“Because of my awesome experience, I’m actually having a really tough time trying to figure out if I do want to do optometry or if I want to pursue a career in culture heritage Chemistry because I think it’s a fascinating field that most people don’t know about,” she says.
As for the Chemistry study abroad class, “I think it’s my favorite class I’ve ever taken at Butler, and this is my fourth year,” Kastenholz says. “I think that speaks a lot about what the Chemistry Department has been putting into these short-term study abroad programs. Sometimes, when you’re a Chemistry or Biology major, you feel like you can’t take that whole semester. But they’re making it so easy to be able to go abroad for a short time. I don’t know how you can say no to it.”
Although study abroad is relatively new to Chemistry, it’s been part of Butler’s sciences programs for at least 30 years, dating back to Biology’s first trip to look at marine life in Belize. Physics and Astronomy also has been taking students to Japan, Spain, Chile and China for at least 10 years.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences believes so strongly in study abroad for science students that it offers financial assistance through Seitz Awards, which assist Natural Science students who desire to study science and conduct research abroad, outside the normal academic classroom setting. Sophomores and junior status majoring in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics are eligible to apply. (Psychology majors studying Physiological or Cognitive/Neuropsychology, or Anthropology majors studying Biological Anthropology, Primatology, or Archaeology also are eligible to apply.)
The Seitz funds have provided financing for students to study all over the world—China, Tanzania, South Africa—and propelled the careers of graduates who’ve gone on to research and travel the world fighting infectious diseases.
The Biology Department has been taking students on study-abroad trips to Belize every other year since the 1980s, thanks in part to the Seitz Awards. There, students get what often is their first exposure to the tropics and marine ecosystems in the second largest barrier reef in the world, said Biology Professor Carmen Salsbury, who has led the trip, which goes every other year, since joining the Butler faculty 17 years ago.
“It gives us the opportunity to dive in deeply—excuse the pun—to those particular habitats,” she said.
Prior to trip, students spend the first part of the semester learning about marine ecology. In the laboratory, they learn to identify organisms. They come to know what the fish are, as well as the ecology of the invertebrates. When they travel to Belize during spring break—they stay on one of the largest island off the coast of Belize, Ambergris Caye, which has a small fishing village that is a popular tourist destination—they’re on or in the water from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily.
In evenings, there’s class to review everything they saw. The students make a list of species and where they’re found so they can see the different patterns of diversity.
They also take one day for a side trip to visit the Mayan ruins and the rainforest.
Salsbury says study abroad trips are important for students to broaden their worldview.
“This goes well beyond science,” she says. “The walk from where we stay to the dock is maybe five blocks. The students walk by houses where there are no windows, there are dirt floors, there are feral dogs everywhere. Chickens and roosters wake them up in the morning because they’re wandering the streets. The streets aren’t paved. It’s a very different experience. I don’t think you can give students a sense of what’s that about until they see it for themselves.”
In the years when Biology students aren’t going to Belize, they’re traveling to Panama for an immersive tropical biology course. There, they walk the Pipeline Road, where over 400 species of birds can be observed at one time or another. They witness researchers collecting bats, take a crane ride more than 130 feet in the air to see the tops of the forest and meet the researchers on Barro Colorado Island, the most intensively studied tropical forest.
That course is heavily subsidized through an endowment from Frank Levinson ’75, part of a $5 million gift to the sciences in 2007 that also enabled the University to buy the Big Dawg supercomputer and make upgrades to the Holcomb Observatory telescope. Biology Department Chair Travis Ryan said Levinson’s endowment covers more than half the course and also pays for two Butler interns to spend the summer interning at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
One of every three Butler interns who works there becomes an author on a paper they helped collect data on, and most have their own independent project they’re working on while they’re interning, Ryan said.
Physics Chair Gonzalo Ordonez said his department has used Seitz Awards for several years. Professor Xianming Han has taken students to China, while Ordonez has gone with others to Japan and Spain.
“That’s been really helpful for our students, and it really improves their prospects for grad school,” Ordonez said. “They get involved in more serious research and they might get interested in a field that they didn’t know before.”
Bradley Magnetta ’15 went to Osaka on a Seitz Award in the summer of 2014. He was in Japan for a month, studying and collaborating with Ordonez’s colleagues there.
Magnetta participated in all the research opportunities available to him at Butler and had a wealth of experience in research in general when he took the study trip.
“I already had a base foundation for my project and I was really ready to start collaborating with people in general,” he says. “I knew I wanted to start collaborating. I heard about this program and I knew that Dr. Ordonez had colleagues working on similar things that I was interested in. So it was a natural fit to pick Japan and Osaka.”
He describes the experience as “excellent,” not just academically but on a personal level. It was his first opportunity to leave the country, he collaborated with a graduate research group—”which as an undergrad was a really cool experience”—and he got to be around different people from different backgrounds and discover that there’s a universal language in sciences and mathematics.
Magnetta said he went in with questions on his project and, through collaboration, was able to answer them. He published the results a couple of years later.
Today, Magnetta is working on a doctorate in applied physics at Yale University and grateful to have had the chance to study abroad.
“I absolutely recommend it,” Magnetta said. “A trip like this really adds clarity because once I get into grad school, I felt very comfortable. When I joined a research group, it was a very familiar feeling because I had already spent a month with a graduate level research group in Japan. So it prepared me for what the group dynamics were. That trip prepared me for my future in a number of ways and I would recommend it to anyone.”