Preserving the Past and Promoting the Future

CREDIT: Janica Webster

Hopi Indians of the American Southwest have imprinted their legacies on the faces of rocks for hundreds of years. By helping modern Hopis preserve their symbolic heritage, Niccole Villa Cerveny is making an impression of her own on the students who take her geology research class, many of whom are Native Americans. Cerveny, a professor at Mesa Community College (MCC) in Arizona, is one of a number of scientists working to bring research into a community college setting.

"I thought about students in my position, being the only person in their family to go to college, not really being familiar with the college experience. How could I help that group of students?" -- Niccole Villa Cerveny

Frequently, the students at community colleges are the first in their families to receive any kind of higher education, Cerveny says. She can relate. "I was a first-generation college student," she says. "Really, the first in my family to finish school."

At Arizona State University (ASU), Cerveny majored in accounting, but geology made an impression on her. "I took one of those crappy lab science courses that everyone is required to take and I fell in love with the geosciences," she says. "But as an undergrad, I couldn't see how you could actually make a living at it." Instead, she went to work in an accounting company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But even as she worked as an accountant, her love of geology grew and with it a desire to share her excitement and knowledge with young people who, like her, don't fit the public's stereotype of what a scientist should look like. "I thought about students in my position, being the only person in their family to go to college, not really being familiar with the college experience. How could I help that group of students?" she says. After 5 years, she returned to ASU to pursue a master's degree in geology. While there, she published several articles in top-tier journals alongside her mentor, Ronald Dorn. After finishing her degree, she took a job teaching introductory geology at MCC.

At most 2-year colleges, large teaching loads, young and underprepared students, and limited resources leave little room for research. But Cerveny soon had her classes applying geology principles to a practical problem literally just outside their classroom.

Low-lying areas of MCC's campus flooded whenever the dry desert campus received significant rains. Maintenance crews couldn't figure out why, so Cerveny set her students on the problem. "I had the students out making a topographic map of the area to figure out why the drainage wasn't working," she says. "We found out that the outgoing drainage was 18 to 22 inches higher than the incoming pipes, so we'd have this huge flood in the middle of our campus each time it rained." Maintenance crews rerouted the pipes and the flooding cleared up.

The drainage wasn't the only thing that worked better after the project. Cerveny noticed that several previously slacking students began to work harder. They preferred working on a real-life problem, they said, and enjoyed seeing their efforts bear real fruit. For perhaps the first time, they realized that science wasn't just a subject to slog through; it was a way to solve problems.

While continuing to teach at MCC, Cerveny returned to ASU to earn her Ph.D. in geology. At the same time, she approached MCC administrators about adding a formal research component to the geology curriculum. They agreed -- reluctantly, Cerveny says. She received nearly $120,000 in grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation to establish a rock art preservation research program at MCC. And she created an independent-study course to allow interested students to participate in the program.

Students who sign up for the independent-study course make regular field trips to Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona, where Hopi art dots the smooth, tan boulders and rock outcroppings. These rocks erode over time under the influence of heat, desert winds, and human activity. As the rocks deteriorate, art is lost or damaged. Cerveny and her students developed the Rock Art Stability Index to assign a rating to the condition of, and danger to, rocks that bear ancient markings.

CREDIT: Niccole Villa Cerveny
Lisa Cole studies a weathered fragment of rock art.

Since she started teaching at MCC, Cerveny has published numerous reports about the project in journals such as Geoarchaeology, Heritage Management, and Weatherwise. Several other articles, with contributions from her students, are in preparation.

Cerveny's students (many of whom are from Native American backgrounds) embrace the project with more enthusiasm than any classroom activity, she says. "But in my female and minority students, it's markedly pronounced. They really feel a connection to the rock art and feel value in studying how the rocks are decaying, because that determines how long we'll be able to keep this cultural resource."

When the park service announced recently that it intended to start ranger-led hikes into an area of the park called Lacey Point, Cerveny's students looked at their data and found that the rock art there was in poor condition. "If somebody bumped up against it, they could knock part of the rock off," Cerveny says. So she and her students told the park's archaeologists that Lacey Point wasn't an ideal site for public hiking. "The students felt very strongly about it," Cerveny says. "They were expressing, in the geologic terms they'd learned, that this was a bad idea." They suggested another site that posed less danger to the Hopi's sacred art. The park service rerouted the hike.

That success underscores everything Cerveny hopes her students will learn from their research experiences, whether they continue on to a career in science or not. "These students, even though they may not be scientists in the future, will be decision-makers and will be in a position to fund research, read a scientific paper, and make decisions with their votes to influence science policy," she says.

Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.

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