UC Davis GEL 138 class

It’s 3 a.m. and a group of UC Davis students are beginning an hours-long trek across barren lava fields under a sky crowded with stars. By sunrise, they’ll have reached glowing rivers of lava flowing from Kilauea Volcano.

“Seeing the sun come up over erupting lava is pretty spectacular,” said Professor Emeritus Rob Zierenberg, who has visited volcanoes across the world.

The sunrise trek is part of Geology 138, a class that vividly brings to life the basics of volcanology — how a volcano works and what are the signs of unrest. During a weeklong adventure in Hawaii, students learn to decipher puzzling rock layers and see volcano monitoring in action with U.S. Geological Survey. 

The only downside is the expense, Cooper said. Although travel is supported in part by the Robert Matthews Memorial Endowment and the Cordell Durrell Field Geology Fund, students must cover their tuition, course fees, and airfare to Hawaii. “We’re working hard to make the course more accessible,” said Professor Kari Cooper, who leads the class. “This is a career-changing field experience.”

But Geology 138 is more than the trip of a lifetime. Students also get an eye-opening experience in crisis management. “In volcano science, there is a very short path from science to policy,” Cooper said.

Experts like Cooper are often called on to explain eruption risks to the public. In the class, Cooper engages students in a real-time scenario where a volcano is about to erupt and they are responsible for deciding what to do next. Students play the roles of scientists, emergency management, government officials, and concerned citizens. They also stage a press conference. “It doesn’t matter how much you know about a volcano if you can’t communicate the information to people who need it in a way they can use it,” Cooper said.

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science