Geology instructors tour historical sites in Italy

May 20, 2013

Writer: Spencer Allen

The tram slowly ascended toward the peak of Mount Etna. On board sat six instructors from the BYU-Idaho Department of Geology and their spouses. With each passing moment, the final destination seemed more uncertain as the overcast sky appeared closer.

Stopping a safe distance from the peak, the doors of the tram opened and the group was greeted with sounds and a scent that would cause most to stay inside the tram. From the top of the peak, gigantic cannon-like sounds boomed. The cause of the noise was revealed, as a scent that would make the sulfur fragrance at Yellowstone National Park seem enjoyable began to penetrate the air. Mount Etna, an active volcano, was erupting.

Over the week break between the winter and spring semesters of 2013, the full-time instructors in the Department of Geology brought their understanding to life with a 12-day tour of Italy and surrounding sites. The trip included a visit to Rome, Florence, and Venice as well as noted natural disaster locations including Pompeii, Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, and the volcanic Greek island of Santorini.

The group was also fortunate enough to witness a small eruption from Mount Etna, the tallest volcano in Europe, which has erupted 11 times since the beginning of the year. Seeing the sites and enjoying the Italian cuisine and culture wasn't the only thing the group anticipated and appreciated. 

"Throughout the trip we discussed and reflected with one another about how this trip will fundamentally change the way we teach," said Robert Clayton, instructor in the Department of Geology. "Being in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by ash from an eruption in 79 AD, was a very personal experience. When you see bodies of people who were trapped in the volcanic eruption or observe furniture and paintings inside the home of the victims, the whole experience is brought to life."

Besides the pictures and videos the group took together that they will show to future classes, Clayton hopes to add personal experiences to bring the cases to life. 

"When we talk about our case studies in natural disaster, we always need to put a human face on it," Clayton said. "We can't be so detached and think there was this huge landslide or earthquake or eruption and leave it at that. We have to know that this affected people and individuals." 

Apart from the instructors who had served missions in Italy, no other instructor had been to Italy before. Regardless of the lack of time in the country, the instructors only relied on tour guides in Herculaneum, Pompeii, Rome, and Santorini. The rest of the time, they depended on each other and the research and understanding gained prior to the trip.