July 30, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

College-age students stand on top of a dune overlooking Lake Michigan doing research.
Note: This photo was taken during a previous FYRES course.

Each September dozens of students from Calvin University frequent the Lake Michigan dunes … for class.

“It’s very important that we have hands-on experiences, that we focus on doing science by investigating,” said Deanna van Dijk, professor of geology, geography, and environmental studies at Calvin University and program director for FYRES (First-Year Research in Earth Sciences).

But this year, van Dijk, had a problem to solve—how to get her class to the dunes for hands-on research experiences frequently throughout the semester given the risks associated with travel and COVID-19. She started thinking about a number of ways to reduce risks and then a crazy idea (her words) crossed her mind.

Creating a dune

“Some ideas, you don’t know where they come from. My mind went ‘well we are trying to bring students to the dunes, but could we bring a dune to the students?’ It seemed like a really crazy idea, and I knew that to make that work it would be an awful lot of sand to place somewhere on campus.”

A lot of sand? Try 450 cubic yards.

She tested the idea on her colleagues to gauge their reaction. To a bit of her surprise, they were all excited about the possibility.

So, in early August, a dune is coming to campus.

“Bringing a dune to campus is such a fun, innovative way to solve many of the problems that come with field research logistics. It won’t be the same as going to the lake coast every week, but I know that with Deanna in charge and the rest of our FYRES mentor team, this semester of FYRES will be just as fun and unforgettable as any other year,” said Peter Duimstra, a senior geography major, and a mentor for the FYRES program in 2020.

Shaping students

Duimstra’s done three years of research along Lake Michigan, and while he sees that experience as invaluable, he sees this shifting of sands to be both a great illustration for life and an opportunity for personal growth.

“The class obviously focuses on Earth science research—as it should, but I find that it teaches lessons that are applicable outside of the classroom as well,” said Duimstra. “Teamwork, critical thinking, and leadership are all a part of the FYRES curriculum, but when it comes to fieldwork in the geo-sciences, I have discovered that things rarely go exactly according to plan. Lake levels, weather, and now even viral infections can have a drastic impact on everything that is done in the field. In this way, I have found that it is much like the rest of life. It is up to your creative thinking and perseverance to overcome these problems. The FYRES class offers a safe, low-stakes opportunity to hone these skills that are so vital to being a successful individual.”

New opportunities forming

The sand will be dumped on the east side of campus and spread over existing topography just east of the Prince Conference Center and given an artificial dune shape until the wind begins to start pushing the sand into more natural shapes.

Van Dijk, who has been doing dune research along Lake Michigan for nearly two decades, sees some unique opportunities for this particular class.

“We can do experiments that we can’t do on the real dunes, and we will be able to watch our research site—we can get out there more frequently,” said van Dijk.

Duimstra is excited to help this year’s FYRES class have as meaningful of an experience as he did as a first year student in 2017.

“I want them to look forward to what is certainly going to be a unique semester and will no doubt inspire them as they begin their university experience.”

“Creativity and problem solving is what we do in science,” said van Dijk. “Two or three years from now, we will look at all that we’ve learned, and we will know that we can rise to other challenges because we practiced it here.”

In addition to the fieldwork that will be done on campus, van Dijk is also working on at least one self-guided individual field trip for each student to take to the Lake Michigan dunes.

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