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CSULB-led Group Explores Easter Island with NSF Funding

Published: September 1, 2009

CSULB explored mysterious Easter Island in July as part of the Geoscience Diversity Enhancement Project (GDEP) funded by the National Science Foundation.

Geography’s Christopher Lee and Suzanne Wechsler as well as Anthropology’s Carl Lipo headed a 10-member group July 3-26 as part of a larger GDEP program running from June to August. Additionally, three funded research projects operated locally and were led by faculty members Christine Rodrigue and Paul Laris from Geography and Geology’s Lora Stevens, Greg Holk and Thomas Kelty.

The goals of GDEP are to increase the number of underrepresented students who have a broad educational and research experience in the geosciences (defined as fields in geography, geology, archaeology and environmental science). This is achieved by including high school and community college faculty and their students in geoscience-related summer research projects. Additionally, GDEP runs field trips and outreach activities for community college and high school students during the school year and over the summer to raise the awareness of geosciences and associated career opportunities.

“The Easter Island summer research team included high school and community college faculty. This teacher-focused model is a slightly different approach than previous GDEP research and is intended to have a multiplier effect,” explained Wechsler, who joined the university in 2000 and is an expert in geographic information systems, hydrology, and natural resource management. “One of the deliverables of this summer experience is the development of curriculum which can be integrated into classes and eventually become a virtual curriculum which can be accessed by high school and community college students.” Easter Island research participants included two faculty from Lakewood High School, Keith Miller and Lindsay Penney; two faculty from Long Beach City College, Ray Sumner from Geography and Laurel Breece from Anthropology; and William Breece, an Anthropology faculty member from Orange Coast College.

“This is a way to get our ideas and training to high school and community college campuses that train students who may eventually come to CSULB to specialize,” said Lipo, a frequent visitor to the remote and tiny Pacific island who joined the university in 2002. “Their participation hopefully encourages students to choose the one of majors in the geosciences for their career paths.”

A second goal is introducing to the faculty members and, through them, to their students, on how to use non-destructive techniques to study and generate data to build a scientific understanding of the island’s monumental statues called moai that have made the island a world heritage site protected within the Rapa Nui National Park. “They’ve applied geospatial techniques that combine data from remotely sensed imagery, global positioning systems, ground penetrating radar and geographic information systems to map the island’s surface resources such as soils and plants,” said Lipo. “It is has been an opportunity for CSULB to introduce these methods to high school and community college instructors.”

Past faculty participation in GDEP has already had a synergistic effect, said Wechsler.

“Two of the faculty members from Lakewood High School who accompanied us this summer participated in past GDEP summer research projects,” she explained. “The Lakewood High School faculty have benefitted greatly from the experience. They are teaching their high school students some of the tools and techniques introduced in previous summers and they have been successful in securing their own grants to support student involvement in geoscience related field activities. Additionally, field research experiences allow CSULB faculty members to enhance teaching by bringing their research into the classroom.”

Lipo points out that there isn’t much in the way of archaeology instruction at the high school and community college level at present.

Easter Island
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Wechsler
Associate Professor Suzanne Wechsler, way off in the distance, and graduate student Alex Morrison collect total station of hillslope on Easter Island.

“By introducing archaeology in this way, it can be related to environmental science, geography and geoscience-oriented classes. It is a way to show high school students that history can be much more dynamic than they’re used to,” he said. “Participating faculty members can bring back photos, descriptions, data and personal experiences that they can then present to their students. We’re trying to create synergy between the local high schools, community colleges and Cal State Long Beach.”

There’s still plenty to learn about Easter Island, with its 800-plus stone statues. “At first, we thought everything was known,” he said.”But we soon realized that nobody knows anything about the island. Even though Easter Island seems incredibly exotic, it is an excellent place to ask questions about the consequences of human-environment interaction. We have found that the island’s residents were remarkably successful in interacting with the environment. The island’s residents reject Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that it was South Americans who raised the famous statues and they don’t believe their ancestors were crazy, either. Who would want to believe that? What our research has done is contribute to the understanding of the island’s resources. This is especially important when you consider that about 70,000 tourists visit the island every year. Everything we can learn about the island’s resources is welcome.

“The summer’s training has had a pragmatic result, too. Our students are learning marketable skills with applications to not only geoscience-related disciplines but also social science fields,” said Wechsler. Lipo agreed, commenting that, ironically, it can be hard to get CSULB Archaeology and Geography majors to finish their degrees because they are so sought-after in the marketplace.

“Any chance to do research is good for students and good for faculty,” said Wechsler. “It enhances teaching and collaboration. It creates opportunities for going forward at all levels. And hopefully it will help GDEP achieve its goal of exposing students to the numerous opportunities provided by the geosciences.”