Faculty Innovator: Jennifer Lathem

1st March 2018
Jennifer Lathem in a classroom with globesJennifer Lathem
Lecturer in Geosciences
School of Natural Sciences








By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Jennifer Lathem grew up on the river. Pretty much in the same way that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn grew up on the river.

Home was Bushman’s Lake, where Charlestown, Indiana, fades out into farmland that becomes brush, then woodland, before sloping down to a series of benches that descend to the Ohio River.

Here a small collection of single-wides and camps and cabins clustered on an unobtrusive sliver of beach. Here the rhythms of the river reigned supreme and a kid’s imagination could fly free across space and time.

Lathem’s father was never without a boat, and she recalls being constantly underway. The family traveled up and down the river, sometimes pushing as far upstream as Madison and the Kentucky River, sometimes puttering closer to home, landing at places like Eighteen Mile Island to build bonfires and spend time with cousins and friends.

It was just a couple of miles from home, but to Lathem it was pure enchantment. She swung out over the river on rope swings, letting go at just the right time and flying out into the current. On her own and with other kids, Lathem tramped along the banks, followed animal tracks, skipped rocks and hunted for arrowheads, built forts in the exposed roots of the trees along the shale bluffs, learned the look and lives of sycamores and cottonwoods, collected driftwood, marked the ways of birds and the changes wrought on the land by the river’s seasonal whims.

During floods she walked on two-by-six planks from her front door to the family car for the drive to school, and in 1997 she watched her father and brother-in-law tow the trailers of others to higher ground with their two tractors, while the home in which she had spent much of her childhood collapsed in rising waters.

As she grew up, Lathem became more conscious of the many roles the river played in her life: a somewhat unruly member of the family, a constant and reliable companion, and a teacher of life lessons. She came to discern its needs and to intuit its moods, to respect its capacity for havoc and to exult in its profound gifts.

Today Lathem is a lecturer in geosciences, instructing students in geology, conservation and physical systems of the environment. And the river has a new role to play: teaching assistant.

Finding home

“As an educator of geosciences, I am very dedicated to encouraging my students to open their minds to the wonder of the world in which they live,” Lathem has written. “I strive to help my students see the relationship between the things I lecture about in the classroom and the same concepts in the real world, especially at the local level.”

For Lathem, local is everything. You can hear it in her liquid Southern Indiana accent. And in her plain-spokenness, redolent with references to real things and real people and real places of the region.

And so her classroom is not a playground for pedagogical paradigms. Learning is less about venturing into the wild blue yonder, and more about opening your eyes to the magic that may be lurking in your own backyard.

That’s important for a student community that, like Lathem, has deep roots in this place, and intends to grow them deeper, rather than pull them up and find another home. To stay doesn’t need to mean to resign oneself to stasis, as Lathem well knows.

On her first day as an undergraduate at IU Bloomington, she experienced an epiphany, a moment of truth about herself and her chosen path.

She returned home, and enrolled at IU Southeast, determined to move ahead, though not quite sure in which direction. She declared six different majors before taking a physical geography course, G107: Physical Systems of the Environment, ironically the same class she teaches today.

“I took that class over the summer to fulfill a general education requirement, but I found that I loved every bit of the material I was learning about, because it felt like home to me,” Lathem said. “I now know that’s because it WAS home to me—the content was everything I’d been most excited about for my entire life.”

She became a geography major the following semester.

The career piece fell into place over time. As a student, she took part in Dr. Glenn Mason’s field geology class to Colorado and Utah, which included stops at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The impressions of that trip inspired Lathem to envision a career with the National Park Service. She volunteered and interned at Falls of the Ohio State Park to get her foot in the door, eventually writing the Park’s first natural resource management plan as well as its first master plan. Then, during graduate school, she got her first real taste of teaching, and knew she had found her calling.

As an instructor, she delights in getting students out of the classroom as soon as possible in their academic journey. She takes them to nearby Marengo, where highway construction has blasted through the bluffs to reveal a wealth of stratified history. It’s a well-worn saying that road cuts are a geologist’s best friend, and Lathem makes full use of their profusion and accessibility close to home. Just off the interstate, at the Sulphur exit, the pickings are good.

“We always go out west for geology,” Lathem said. “But there’s geology right here, too.”

That can be a revelation for students who may initially see their home as humdrum.

“When they realize they can pull off the road and collect 300 million year old marine fossils, that really wows them,” Lathem said.

Lathem injects her classroom and field trips with an infectious “hey look at this!” enthusiasm. The result is visible in her G107 course. She teaches concepts like adiabatic cooling and the angle of incidence, scattering and convection. There is plenty of room for questions and discussions. And afterward, hands fly up requesting more explanation, and Lathem obliges, with a patience and joy that suggests she has been hoping and waiting for a chance to go into greater depth, or explore the implications, or just repeat the cool information she earlier presented in the Powerpoint.

“I think being a good teacher almost comes naturally when one has as much passion for the material as I do,” Lathem said.

Environmental realism

Lathem’s determination and ability to connect with students spills over into her conservation ethic.

Her environmentalism comes not from theory, but from observations on the rivers and lakes she lives near and swims in. Take Nolin Lake in Kentucky, where she spends a lot of time in the summer. As at all reservoirs, Nolin Lake can have problems with sedimentation, which causes water to become more shallow, which in turn causes the water to warm, which combines with fertilizer runoff from agriculture to encourage blooms of toxic algae.

It was through direct experience of these algal blooms that Lathem became increasingly focused on water quality. It is now her main interest, as a natural phenomenon, an environmental problem and a public health issue.

When Lathem talks about reservoirs to her students, she describes all the mechanical processes at work, upstream and downstream, before and after, because in the real world, everything is connected.

While this is not usually a hard sell for students pursuing sustainability studies, general education students may not have confronted conservation science.

She gains credibility through her affability but also through having been a “river rat” herself. She does not set out to proselytize, but to inform .

“The students see me as someone who goes to the lake, in a real way I connect with them,” Lathem said. “I’ll teach them about something they never knew was an issue.”

That teaching takes place in the classroom, in the lab and also in the field.

Lathem takes classes to a favorite spot along Fourteen Mile Creek. The students take samples and prepare them for water quality analysis.

After the analysis comes the follow-through, as Lathem encourages students to think about the consequences of a given human activity like dam construction, and to consider actions to be taken to mediate its impacts.

Lathem has her feet on the ground.

“I’m not environmentally perfect on everything,” Lathem said. “There’s a give and take—unless you’re living off the grid and the land.”

That give and take is what makes Lathem’s approach so forthright, inclusive and ultimately positive.

The state of the environment may be dire, but humans have the ability to understand it, and thus to have a preventive or healing impact through responsible decisions informed by the best available science.

Jennifer Lathem explains concepts to students.

Accessible, engaged, impassioned: Jennifer Lathem invests time and energy in making sure that students in intro classes grasp the fundamentals of geoscience.

Lathem professes her desire that students feel not despondent, but impassioned by the material they are absorbing, and especially by the scientific methods they are mastering. This is where the power lies to independently pursue a line of inquiry that might lead to positive change.

“If you leave my class thinking we’re doomed, then I’ve failed,” Lathem said. “My job is to educate and inspire students to make the world better, not to scare them or make them feel like it’s a lost cause, because it’s not.”

Making science attractive

Lathem’s masters thesis focused on adaptations to hazards along the Ohio River, using Bushman’s Lake as a case study.

Besides the science, Lathem devoted a section to the psychology of the denizens of the river–the people who grew up there and left without looking back, those who moved away but kept one toe in the water, so to speak, and the diehards who would never go, no matter how many times they get flooded out.

Perhaps on some level it’s a veiled autobiography, describing parts of Lathem’s own complex relationship with the river.

In any event it is certainly a work that applies geoscientific analysis to that which is already familiar. Far from breeding contempt, that familiarity enabled Lathem to comprehend the river on a deeper level, to recognize the extraordinary in the commonplace.

This is the same approach she brings to the classroom, using familiar examples to explain complex concepts to students who may never have a chance to visit the Amazon River or Great Barrier Reef or Antarctica.

In her relaxed manner, variety of presentations (lecture, video, daily group quizzes, group activities and discussions), accessibility and openness to student inquiry, Lathem not only addresses diverse learning needs but also builds a comfort that translates into excitement for science.

“It is important to me that my students not only learn the material, but that they also develop an appreciation for the discipline,” Lathem said.

That appreciation, Lathem hopes, will lead to the creation of more scientists.

Enrollment figures show that very few students arrive at IU Southeast with a burning desire to major in geosciences. Rather, like metamorphic rock, they are gradually transformed into geoscience majors under the influence of external forces—not pressure and heat, in this case, but the allure of fieldwork, the adventure of discovery, the potential for finding a missing link in the story of Earth.

“We do a really good job at making it look attractive,” Lathem said.

With Mason’s western field study excursions usually only taken by upper-level students, it has become Lathem’s crusade to open younger hearts and minds to geoscience.

Incorporating field study in lower-level courses, her innovation of choice, is thus part of what makes geosciences popular.

With her deep local knowledge and keen powers of observation, Lathem is perfectly suited to unveiling the magic that hides in plain sight. Witness the class outings to nearby Falls of the Ohio State Park, where students not only study erosion, search for fossils and tour the wooded river banks, but also glimpse their field as a possible career, in the form of park naturalists and curators who translate the science behind the scenery for visitors, transporting them from today’s utilitarian waterfront to the dinosaur-filled dawn of time.

Shaping the future

This week, the river is up to its old tricks, swelling to the tenth highest crest ever seen in Louisville: 36 feet.

Entire towns like Utica are swamped, floodgates in downtown Louisville are closed, the Belle bobs eye-to-eye with commuters on I-64, the MacAlpine Locks are submerged.

And up at Bushman’s Lake, Lathem’s family is once again hauling trailers up to a field on the second bench, out of harm’s way.

In her G107 class, the river cuts a channel through Lathem’s lecture. She brings the current flood crisis, and its origins in atmospheric conditions, to life with an immediacy that few if any could ever match.

In Lathem’s presentation, the flood of 2018 is not a disaster, it’s a force of nature, and the students have an enviable front-row seat, if they can adjust their perspective just a little.

“My goal is to get my students to open their eyes and minds to see and understand what is happening in the world around them so that they will hopefully gain the interest and knowledge to help shape the future of our world,” Lathem said.

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