Making Geology More Accessible

Alida Schefers and Professor Linda Reinen sit in the middle of their classroom.

More often than not, Alida Schefers ’21 makes the first contact with her professors to let them know she uses a wheelchair and may need accommodations in the classroom. Last year around this time, it was the professor who contacted Schefers. Professor of Geology Linda Reinen invited her to meet in person, visit the classroom and talk over the plans for the class field trip.

Since then, the bond between Schefers and Professor of Geology Linda Reinen has strengthened, and the classroom experience has changed – for the better – for all of Reinen’s students.

“I attended my first geology class – Intro to Geohazards with Professor Linda Reinen – because I thought it was important to understand the natural hazards in our environment,” says Schefers who wanted to learn the how and why of the Earth’s processes. The course provides students with basic geological concepts and focuses on current hazardous regions and historical events.

In Reinen’s revamped classroom, the most important rock samples now sit at the end of narrow tables with spacious and cleared aisles that ensure a wheelchair user can move through with ease. A stream table (a tall table that demonstrates stream erosion through water and sediment movement) has a camera with a bird’s eye view positioned atop that records the artificial stream moving layers of sediment. The video is played back on a large screen for all students to see the action without having to leave their seats to cluster in small groups around the four-foot table.

“I believe that simply an increased awareness of accessibility by all staff and students would make a real difference in the lives of disabled students at Pomona,” says Schefers, who has used a wheelchair since the age of 10 when a viral infection damaged her spinal cord and she became paralyzed from the waist down. While Reinen’s changes might seem minor, they make the classroom and lessons accessible to all in a major way.

It was these changes that the International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) took note of when they awarded Reinen with the 2018 Inclusive Geoscience Education and Research (IGER) Award. The award is given to instructors who promote, develop and/or implement inclusive instruction and research that supports active engagement and participation in the geosciences for students with disabilities.

Geology is physical. “Students move between rock stations, use microscopes, they work at the sink to see chemical reactions… so I needed to know what this student would be comfortable doing,” says Reinen.

The two biggest adjustments, now permanent additions to Intro to Geohazards, were the addition of the video over the stream table and changes to the mandatory field trip, says Reinen.

“Jonathan Harris, the geology technician, came up with a workaround for the stream table. He suggested to have a video camera above the table instead of having students take turns around it,” explains Reinen.

Reinen also added an alternate field trip, developed by alumnus and former visiting professor Tom Doe ’71. The alternate field trip is entirely on paved roads through the historic geological events and natural hazards at The Claremont Colleges.

“Not all geologists are field geologists, there’s a large component of geoscience that does not require field excursions like seismology, geochemistry, geophysics, geomorphology and planetary geology,” says Reinen, who believes that geology can and should be accessible to all students, regardless of physical ability or experience in hiking and camping.

Earlier this month, Schefers went on her first geology trip away from Pomona College, a fully accessible trip to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky organized by the IAGD. Reinen recommended that particular trip.

“Being able to see and discuss the geological features of the locations with other geology students, professors from various universities, and the knowledgeable park ranger Rick Toomey was incredible,” says Schefers.

Schefers came to Pomona interested in lots of different areas, from the arts to languages, but it’s the sciences and Pomona’s interdisciplinary approach to them that has captured her full interest. “I’m concerned about the environment and climate change,” says Schefers, “and thought that this introduction geology class would be a good start.”

“I realized that geology is the most interdisciplinary science I have encountered… it uses ecology, oceanography, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.,” says Schefers. Although she adds that geology seems like a natural fit because of her many interests, she admits she’s not quite sure what she’ll end up majoring in because environmental analysis and linguistics are also top contenders.

She recently found out she was accepted into The Claremont Colleges’ EnviroLab Asia program as a fellow in 2019. The program includes an 11-day trip to Japan to participate in a lab researching access issues for people with disabilities in that country. “It’s a topic which, of course, is of deep interest to me and I’m really looking forward to doing this research with other fellows of the 5Cs.”

Through Schefers’ exploration of interests beyond geology, Reinen continues to be supportive. Schefers notes that Reinen, now her faculty advisor, not only asks her about potential challenges but also foresees classroom obstacles, like a heavy door with no automatic open button.

“I’m used to things being inaccessible but Linda… she sees it,” says Schefers.

She adds, “Simple changes can make a big difference, and if everyone were mindful of a missed opportunity for a disabled student and took the time to advocate on their behalf, then the changes would be immense. One of my favorite sayings is: ‘If everyone did a little, no one would have to do a lot.’”