The Sensuous Approach to Earth Science

The Sensuous Approach to Education in the Earth and Enviromental Sciences

How do we learn? Through a plethora of streaming input from our environment transmitted via all of our senses to our brains. Our bodies and minds sort, store, catalogue, discard, modify and synthesize the data to create impressions and learning experiences uniquely our own.

Here in Hawaii, TEOK (The Edge of Kauai) Investigations engages all of one’s senses in our week long, certified, earth science-based field seminars designed for science educators. On the geologically very young Island of Hawaii we offer the program Geoscience on the Big Island. The Science of Ecosystems seminar is conducted on the more geologically and ecologically mature Island of Kauai. Such programs are offered through the summer months of June, July and August, and provide three Continuing Education Units (CEUs) through the University of Hawaii. In addition, for student groups ranging from middle school to high school and college, we provide, throughout the year, customized one-week/one-island to two-week/two-island all-inclusive field learning programs.

Referred to commonly as the “hands-on-approach” or perhaps “place-based-learning,” our seminar experiences focus on engaging, both consciously and subconsciously, all of one’s senses. As so aptly expressed by Diane Ackerman, in her stimulating book, A Natural History of the Senses, “the world is a construct the brain builds based on the sensory information it’s given.” To her the world is “sense-luscious,” where “the senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscope pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When dissected, the “Paradise of Hawaii” is merely the construct of the stimulation of all your senses by elements that humans find pleasurable: temperature perfect for the human body, spectacular scenery that so pleases the eye, the many pleasant sounds of nature, gentle sweet aromas and even the subtle tastes of the beautiful surrounding atmosphere.

The uniqueness of Hawaii’s paradise is vast, a product of its extreme isolation and persistent trade winds. Few comprehensive textbooks dealing with earth and environmental science fail to incorporate the incomparable aspects of this volcanic mountain chain archipelago. It’s a learning place of exceptional value. Investigations of Hawaii’s massive shield volcanoes, the planet’s largest mountains, provide explanations for our radioactive-heat/gravity-driven dynamic Earth through the interactive sciences of volcanology and plate tectonics. Hawaii’s 1600-mile long volcanic mountain top archipelago displays 30 million years of geological and biological evolution, both marine and terrestrial. Interaction of the trade winds with the skyward protruding, mid-ocean island mountains resulted in a vast array of environmental setting ranging from subtropical reefs and skeletal sand beaches to rain forests, swamps, deserts and even subarctic mountain tops once covered by glacial ice.

Hawaii’s isolation (these are Earths most isolated islands, by far) dictated initially that only plants, birds and insects would arrive and proliferate; native land reptiles and mammals were essentially absent, except for the monk seal that sleeps on the beach and a tiny bird-like bat. This extreme isolation provided a hot bed for speciation, resulting in islands with the planet’s highest degree of endemism. Being some of the islands last discovered, occupied and modified by humans, as little as 1000-1200 years ago, Hawaii now presents itself as a perfect place to also investigate many of the ways in which humans are capable of impacting natural environments. The degree of modification resulting from action such as habitat removal for agriculture, over harvesting of resources, and the introduction of invasive species of plants and animals is well displayed. We see ecosystems ranging from near native to those completely made over to support the wide range of island inhabitants, including the initial Polynesian discovers, Europeans and others arriving after subsequent “discovery” by Captain James Cook in 1778, and the present society driven by the military and a visitor service economy.

Our field educational programs take advantage of all of that and more, using the sensuous approach to learning and understanding. For example, we find that the subtle variation in texture of sand across the wave and wind-produced subunits of a beach, such as the backshore, berm and foreshore, may be best experienced traversing it bare foot. No microscope can give one such a total and instant understanding with such immediate pleasure. We have discovered that there is little that is more enduring than the aroma of a forest, a swamp, the shore, a vast trade wind impacted arid costal plain. When one gently plucks a blossom or forcibly strikes a rock with their hammer, the brain is flooded with an array of impulses, some barely detectable, that are instantly sorted and synthesized by our varied senses. The incorporation of sight, sound, smell, touch and even the subtle impulse of a moist taste on the lips further feeds the investigation. Your mind never forgets the sensuousness of standing next to a river of reddish-orange, molten hot, pahoehoe-producing lava on the slopes of Kilauea Volcano, Big Island, experiencing its almost silent heat along with the acrid taste and aroma of its gaseous emissions. It’s truly a sensual tsunami of data! Again borrowing from Diane Ackerman, in Hawaii’s incomparable setting “the body takes stock of the world . . . looking for patterns and stratagems.” Here you come to “hold a glance a little longer than usual to let the eyes smolder and a smile creep onto the lips.”

We invite you to consider a sensuous learning experience in Hawaii. Educators who have attended our field seminars reported that their understanding of nature, of ecosystems and of geological processes did not stop when they returned to their classrooms. Triggered by a sound, an image, a memory, the learning experience continued to unfold, building upon the solid foundation of experiential learning through their place-based study.

Please review the one and two island earth and environmental science field seminar programs we provide for both science educators and for school groups. Customized programs, with specific emphasizes, can be designed for all groups.

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