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'Monmouth College on the Rails'

Barry McNamara
Nine intrepid Monmouth College students and two faculty members will be riding the rails for two weeks this summer, as the college rolls out the first phase of a new academic initiative called “Monmouth College on the Road.”

Developed by biology professor James Godde, the unusual learning experience will consist of a three-credit course in environmental microbiology, conducted part of the time aboard the California Zephyr passenger train. During the excursion, Godde will lead discussions, administer exams and assign readings, which the students will be able to access on electronic reading devices such as Amazon Kindles. Faculty member Kristin Larson will also accompany the students.

This year’s inaugural program, which could actually be dubbed “Monmouth College on the Rails,” will also feature several stops, including four at “extreme” environments for microorganisms, as well as a trip to the location that inspired the “on the road” idea in the first place.

MC alumni Stan and Karen Barrett Chism of Palo Alto, Calif., and David Byrnes, who has a residence in LaQuinta, Calif., were each impressed with the green initiatives at the Frog’s Leap Winery in California’s Napa Valley. They began to consider ways that students at their alma mater could see it, which led to them funding the trip west, which grew to include stops at Salt Lake City, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and, on the way home, Rocky Mountain National Park. Respectfully, those sites will allow students to collect samples of microorganisms that thrive in extreme conditions related to high salt, heat and alkalinity, as well as acidity.

The level of funding has provided an “all-expense-paid” opportunity for the students, although Godde said that future “Monmouth College on the Road” trips might require that the students subsidize a portion of the costs. Future ideas that have been discussed include a trip to the desert Southwest and a rail-based Midwestern trip in the summers of 2011 and 2012, respectfully.

While most of the students on this summer’s trip will be current biology majors at Monmouth, one spot in this year’s trip is reserved for a first-time student who will participate as part of the college’s recent Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities (SOFIA) initiative.

Godde said that train travel was chosen because it’s more ecologically friendly, and “it’s also a good way to travel when you’re not in a particular hurry, which we aren’t.”

After spending a week on campus, the students will depart from Galesburg on Aug. 8 and return on Aug. 21, the date of the college’s matriculation ceremony. Not all of the trip will by done by train, as the group will need to rent vans to travel to their specific destinations. Most of their overnight stays will be in campgrounds or hostels.

Although the class will officially end when the train pulls into Galesburg, Godde expects much of the work with the samples to continue as senior research projects and individual research, and he will also incorporate it into his regular microbiology course in the fall.

As an associate professor of biology, Godde’s role on the trip is clear. But why is Larson, an associate professor of psychology, involved?

“This trip is such a crazy idea, she has to make sure we stay grounded,” joked Godde.

However, what Larson will really be doing is observing the inner workings of such a trip in order to see how it might play out in an even larger way – a “Semester on Rails” proposal that the college is strongly considering for 2013.

“Students would travel by train through Europe and Asia for an entire semester, and most of the cost would be covered by their normal tuition and board,” said Godde, who would accompany Larson and evenly split a four-course teaching load. “It would be a trip that juniors would take, and they would have the opportunity to take their junior-level Reflections course, plus courses in psychology, nutrition and field biology.”