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July 7, 2017

Combining digital and hands-on learning leads this Sun Devil to success

Imagine you’re on a 28-mile journey that takes you across icy rivers and up steep jungle trails. After a grueling two days, you and your research team catch your first glimpse of the mountaintop archaeological site Ciudad Perdida, the “Lost City.”

It may sound like the opening scene of a summer blockbuster, but it was a recent reality for one mother of three, military spouse and Arizona State University online student.

Kristin Keckler-Alexander spent last summer at a field school in Colombia. Although the trek to the site itself was long, her journey really began several years before, when she was working toward an associate’s degree in history.

During that time, a “crazy-amazing professor” made anthropology come alive for her, she said, and got her interested in the connections between history and archaeology.

At an adviser’s recommendation, she later transferred to ASU Online and is now in the process of earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology, a minor in global health and a 4+1 master’s degree in history through the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“ASU Online gave me — a military spouse with three children who doesn’t live anywhere for very long — the opportunity to pursue my degrees, and that’s not something I would have at a brick-and-mortar institution,” she said.

“A lot of people seem to think that getting an online education is super easy,” she added, “but this learning style comes with its own set of challenges.”

Besides self-motivation, organization and an openness to unique communication workarounds with professors, online students also require a willingness to seek out their own extracurricular experiences.

"You dive into something, and you find out new information which leads you to new, bigger questions. And that’s part of the fun of it."
— Kristin Keckler-Alexander

Not wanting to miss out on the grit and real-world adventure of archaeological research, Keckler-Alexander found a program that allowed students to work in the field — in this case, at Ciudad Perdida.

Located high in the Sierra Nevada on the north coast of Colombia, the sprawling, terraced site was built by the Tairona people around AD 800.

“Getting to the site is pretty intense, but you fall in love with it as soon as you’re there,” she said. “It was definitely one of those life-changing experiences.”

Keckler-Alexander and the team with her camped on the site for a month. During that time, tasks such as historic reconstruction, archaeological survey, excavation and topographic mapping cemented a passion for fieldwork and taught her that each discovery only leads to more curiosity.

“You dive into something, and you find out new information which leads you to new, bigger questions,” she said. “And that’s part of the fun of it.”

This summer, in addition to continuing her online studies, Keckler-Alexander is taking advantage of several other opportunities to work in her field, including an ongoing project with the Society for American Archaeology to advise the Boy Scouts on the archaeology merit badge. She’ll also be heading to the Kansas State Historical Society field school with one of her sons, and she is anticipating the publication of a scholarly paper she wrote as a capstone project for her history degree.

The paper describes a little-known, WWI-era women’s civic organization that nonetheless had a big impact in the Midwest. Members of the Military Sisterhood of America provided financial charity, negotiated discounts for goods sold to soldiers, and even organized lawyers in Kansas and other Midwestern states to offer free legal services to military families.

“I became very passionate about making sure that people knew who these remarkable women were,” Keckler-Alexander said. “In my opinion, they were the precursor to a lot of the standard Army community service activities that we have today.”

Once she completes her master’s degree, Keckler-Alexander plans to apply to an archaeology doctoral program, though she may take some time off beforehand to work in the field. Her hope is to someday return to the sites in Colombia and bring her daughter with her, so that she too can be inspired by all the female scientists there.

“My daughter is very much in that age where she’s starting to think about what she wants to be when she grows up,” Keckler-Alexander said. “If that means she wants to be a shovel bum like her mom, then she can be a shovel bum. There really are no limits.”

 

Top photo: Kristin Keckler-Alexander (center-right) hikes across a river in Colombia with her research team. Photo courtesy of Kristin Keckler-Alexander

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-727-6577

 
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Gully washers and boulder rollers: How monsoons shape the desert

Arizona's desert is sculpted by summer storms — and the small ones add up.
July 7, 2017

ASU geomorphologist talks about the types of floods that do the most to sculpt the land — and it's not the ones you'd expect

Editor's note: This is the first in our weeklong monsoon series. To read the second story, about social media's influence on storm coverage, click hereFor the final story, looking at monsoons from a Native American cultural viewpoint, click here.

Fly above the desert and the paradox is obvious: It’s a place with almost no water, but it’s entirely shaped by water. Washes that flow maybe every 20 or 30 years are etched into hardpan far from mountains.

Monsoons define the desert by driving physical change. Summer storms sculpt the land. Sediment is deposited. An old channel becomes silted up. A new channel is carved in another place. Like the creative process, some of it is a mystery.

Arizona State University geomorphologist Kelin Whipple studies how the Earth is shaped by climate, tectonics and surface processes. One time he was examining an enormous boulder at a ranch near Bagdad, Arizona. The rancher called the storm that moved it a “boulder roller.”

A storm that tosses around boulders the size of minivans doesn’t come around often. People who live close to the land sit up and pay attention to events like that. “They know they’re quite rare,” said Whipple, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Those rare floods chisel the land more dramatically, but it’s the gully washers, not the boulder rollers, that do more work year in and year out.

“A day of high flow is still just one day out of 365,” Whipple said. “A flood that occurs on an annual basis is just not a big flood. Floods that really do the work of deepening canyons and transporting sediments, those are floods that occur at a minimum once every two years. ... It’s the smaller ones that add up. We don’t know really in a quantitative way where is the range of floods that do the most work, either in a mountain environment or a desert environment — we don’t know that very well.”

In the 1950s geologists began to learn that the floods that do the most work over time are the smaller biannual floods.

“They don’t do all that much, but it happens pretty frequently,” Whipple said. “A hundred-year flood does an awful lot, but it happens so infrequently that two-year events add up to more.”

Annual monsoon flooding doesn’t do much at all. It takes critical velocity plus depth to move large material, like gravel. (In geology, gravel is anything larger than sand: granules, pebbles, cobbles and boulders.) Certain thresholds of shearing stress, force that causes layers or parts to slide upon each other in opposite directions, need to be topped before anything happens.

“You need a certain amount of shear stress before you’re going to get gravels actually moving,” Whipple said. “Usually a two-year (flood) will get gravels moving so you get some change. If you’ve got a system that’s armored with a bunch of big boulders, or if you’re asking what floods can actually rip in and deepen the canyon, erode deeper over time, it’s got to work its way into rock and might have higher shear stresses and pull out big blocks, then you’re talking about a five- or 10-year flood to even exceed the shear stress and get anything to happen.”

There are two big rain events in Southwestern deserts: the monsoons and occasional hurricanes wafting up from the Gulf of California. Geologists have a limited amount of data to work with. It only goes back 20 or 30 years, or at most 100. Existing data hints at a tapering-off of flood size. Scientists know how big floods get, but not how often they happen. Floods that would wipe Phoenix or Tucson off the map don’t happen at all.

“They just don’t get much bigger than X,” Whipple said. “It never happens. There’s no such thing as a 5,000-year flood.”

 

Top photo by Nicholas Hartmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502