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Glyn Williams-Jones

Four students of SFU volcanologist Glyn Williams-Jones (left, with a colleague during a recent Indonesian field trip) are taking a volcano hazard course simultaneously, via teleconferencing, with students from five other North American universities.

North American universities team up to study volcanoes

January 25, 2007

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By Carol Thorbes

For the first time at SFU, volcanologists-in-training from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are studying volcanic hazards together, without setting foot outside their classrooms.

The 50 senior-level undergraduate/graduate students, including four in one of SFU assistant professor Glyn Williams-Jones' classes, are on six campuses North America-wide.

In addition to SFU, two Mexican universities (UNAM and Colima), Michigan Tech, Buffalo and McGill are offering the class through eHAZ, a university exchange program in earth hazards created under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The class will prepare students for a field trip in August 2007, to examine key volcanoes and landslides in B.C., Washington State and Northern California, including Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier.

Williams-Jones, who studies active volcanoes worldwide, says understanding the complexity of volcanoes is key to making their potentially catastrophic eruption more predictable. "While there are many tools that can be used to monitor the signs that can precede significant changes in volcanic activity, they are expensive to install. The fact is that there are more active volcanoes than people, instruments or money to study them."

Thanks to state-of-the-art teleconferencing software, eHAZ students are jointly studying what causes volcanoes to collapse and attending lectures by 14 internationally known experts on volcano instability. The software allows participants to converse in real time, jointly hear lectures and visually map out ideas simultaneously on a digital whiteboard.

Williams-Jones says this course will help universities overcome their difficulty in regularly offering advanced classes on volcanology.

"They require up-to-the-minute knowledge of highly specialized subjects and this is a difficult challenge for faculties which must struggle to keep track of all advanced topics," explains Williams-Jones. "Seminar series are one way to address the need for currency, but these are costly and demand that experts be available to travel."

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