The beauty and nuances of Iceland, through a multidisciplinary lens

Tracing a circular path around Iceland, the students in Alain Plante’s Penn Global Seminar saw firsthand the nation’s unique geology, culture, politics, energy, people, and wildlife.

students in alain plante's iceland class
Yasmin Wallis and Joseph Squillaro look on as journalist Maddie Stone offers advice on writing engagingly for a general audience, one of the course’s objectives. Stone, a former doctoral student of professor Alain Plante, is managing editor at the news website Earther.

Tourism in Iceland is booming, with well over a million foreign visitors annually. Most linger in the “Golden Circle,” a 300-kilometer sightseeing route in the southwestern part of the country. But students in Alain Plante’s Penn Global Seminar strayed far afield of that route, instead traversing the country’s 1,300-kilometer ring road to take in a fuller picture of Iceland’s people and environment.

Plante, a soil scientist in the School of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Earth and Environmental Science, had traveled to Iceland on a field ecology trip as a master’s student, and it had a lasting impact. In his Global Seminar this past semester, he aimed to recreate a similar experience for his own students.

“Being in an earth science department, I felt like it was really a no-brainer place to go, where geology and the environment are in your face,” says Plante. “The landscape in Iceland is incredible, but it’s also a place of paradoxes. It’s a renewable energy hub, yet there’s also this tourist boom, so it’s interesting to think about how the infrastructure is changing to meet the new demands.”

iceland landscape with a waterfall
Falling 200 feet, the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the southern coast of Iceland coats students in a fine spray as they hike beneath. The waterfall is part of the Seljalandsá River, which originates from a glacier that sits atop the volcano that disrupted travel across Europe in 2010. (Photo: Josh Pontrelli)

Plante’s course, one of an expanded roster of 12 Global Seminars offered during the 2018-19 academic year, was designed to allow students to take a critical eye to these paradoxes. After launching the course with introductions to the country’s history, culture, economy, and environment, Plante asked each student to research and write—and then workshop and revise—a case study on a particular aspect of Iceland.

Tathagat Bhatia, a rising junior majoring in science, technology, and society, came into the course with an interest in how people conceive of nature and the environment. For his case study, he chose to look into environmentalism in Iceland, with an emphasis on perceptions of three aluminum smelters, which together consume 70% of the energy produced in the country.

“Iceland is often regarded as this beacon of sustainability, but one of the conclusions we got to was that it’s not enough to say Icelanders are green,” says Bhatia, who is from Lucknow, India. “The story is more complicated than that.”

Being in an earth science department, I felt like it was really a no-brainer place to go, where geology and the environment are in your face. Alain Plante, a soil scientist in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science

These nuances revealed through research became especially apparent as the students embarked on their trip in mid-May. Grace Boroughs of Johannesburg, South Africa, a rising senior studying environmental management and sustainability, also examined the aluminum smelters as part of her case study, specifically one opened by the American company Alcoa in 2007. While some Icelanders welcomed the new jobs, Boroughs found, others worried about the environmental impacts.

“It’s hard to write about people’s opinions in a country you haven’t been to, but I actually got to interact with different people and talk to them about their conceptions about the smelter,” says Boroughs. “At one stage we spoke to the mayor of a small town. He said the arrival of the smelter completely polarized the community. That one argument kind of defined the political views of these two groups of people ever since.”

students in the iceland class, holding goats
Staci Bell, Cezanne Lojeski, Joseph Squillaro, and Evelyn Sorrell visit with some young residents of the Háafell Icelandic Goat Center. (Photo: Josh Pontrelli)

The students took part in formal lectures from professors, and informal ones from the proprietors of their hotels where they stayed, and from their charismatic tour guide, a native Icelander who peppered their van rides with stories about folklore and culture. For much of the trip, they were on the move: hiking on glaciers, navigating boulders on the way to view waterfalls, viewing humpback whales from a boat, or holding goats and patting Icelandic ponies.

Having taken courses with Plante before, rising senior Staci Bell, an earth science major from Sicklerville, New Jersey, didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to get out in the field while fulfilling degree requirements. The Global Seminar also allowed her a chance to travel without committing to a full semester of studying abroad. And Iceland didn’t disappoint.

“Throughout the semester we were looking at pictures of mountains, these crazy-looking black deserts, but when we landed and got off the plane it was so foggy that we couldn’t really see anything except moss and an airport,” says Bell. “But once we got outside Reykjavik, it exceeded our expectations. It was completely inconceivable how beautiful it was.”

Bell’s case study took up the issue of soil erosion, which has an outsize impact on the Icelandic landscape. Though believed to arise from both anthropogenic and natural factors, there is disagreement about which culprit is more significant. Bell was able to speak about her research with an Icelandic scholar who is also a farmer, getting a more personal perspective and an appreciation for the need to respect complexity in order to tackle difficult environmental challenges.

Those lessons will be of use to Bell in her summer internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where, for a second year, she’ll be consulting with farmers in South Jersey on how to improve their soil conservation practices.

For Plante, bringing students like Bell, interested in environmental science, together with students from a variety of other academic backgrounds, from history to business, made the course and trip more valuable for all involved.

“By design, Penn Global Seminars have to attract students in a variety of majors,” says Plante. “We have a couple of Wharton students, maybe a third environmental science majors of some stripe, and then two-thirds have only a minimal background in the area. The idea is they’re bringing in their own unique perspectives on some of these environmental issues.”

One skill Plante hopes all the students walk away with is a better understanding of how to communicate effectively across disciplinary boundaries. Before the trip, he invited his former doctoral student, Maddie Stone, now managing editor at the news outlet Earther, to give a lecture and interactive workshop on writing engagingly for a general audience.

students from the iceland class touring a museum
At the Skógar Folk Museum, students learned about the history of fishing and farming in Iceland, relevant to some of the case studies they researched and presented on during the course. (Photo: Alain Plante)

Armed with Stone’s lessons on how to craft appealing ledes and nut grafs (journalism-speak for the beginning of a story and a paragraph or section that explains the context of a piece), the students will be wrapping up the course by submitting a reader-friendly blog post summing up their takeaways from the trip.

For Jacob Rieber, a rising senior from Thomasville, Georgia, who is majoring in economics, one of those takeaways is a vivid sense of how human beings can adapt to new realities. His semester-long research looked at Iceland’s quota system to regulate the fishing industry, a regulation that, in some cases, led to the collapse of small fishing enterprises in favor of larger corporations which bought up the rights to fish certain stocks.

“Going into the project I was prepared to find out that the legislation completed wrecked the fishing communities and left these little towns desolate,” Rieber says. “But we saw how communities could adapt and change, finding new livelihoods to replace the old ones.”

In addition to that insight, Rieber won’t soon forget the country’s hot tubs. “Almost every place we stayed had one,” he says. “In one place, after a full day of hiking and sightseeing, we were all in these hot tubs and we’re looking at the mountains all around and there are literally sheep walking right next to us. I just remember thinking, ‘How in the world is this a thing?’”

students in a small working group
Plante encouraged small group work throughout the class, initiating bonds that cemented during the culminating 10-day trip to Iceland. Students brought a variety of perspectives to the lessons, coming from academic backgrounds in the sciences, history, business, and more.

Homepage photo: Students in the Penn Global Seminar explored the Sólheimajökull Glacier as part of their circuit of Iceland. Professor Alain Plante described the country as “a place of paradoxes,” with a diversity of landscapes, industries, and viewpoints. (Photo: Josh Pontrelli)