On Doing a Directed Study Project

If you scroll through the comments of my South Africa Study Abroad album on Facebook, almost every other comment is some family member commenting about how I better also be doing work while abroad. In their defense, I can see how they might think that study abroad has been all play and no work; after all, a scenic hike lends itself to being photographed far more than my Anthropocene Environments in Perspective class. However, every day from 12:00-12:45, there I am, in the same seat in the middle of the classroom, diligently taking notes and not photographing it.

Another element of my study abroad experience not well represented in the pictures I share has been my directed study project. Despite the lack of photos, I think this may be one of the coolest things I am doing in South Africa.

For my study abroad program, one credit was designated to be an independent semester-long project on a topic of our choosing. All I knew was that I wanted my project to be engineering-based. Coming up with a topic and advisor proved to be the hardest part. Having such a wide open window really tested my interests. I really thought the ocean might be my calling, but after several meetings with oceanographers, I realized oceanography research was not what I dreamt up it to be.

However, I ultimately ended up with a project that fit the interests that I think I always knew were there, but wasn’t sure what form those interests could take. My discovered interests lie in climate change and modeling, and I have been working with a researcher in the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town to investigate when 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming will be reached and what temperatures will be at that time, particularly in the Western Cape of South Africa. I am using this information to determine the implications of climate change on grapes grown in the Western Cape.

A vineyard in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. A wine tasting proved to be a photographic opportunity for grape growing in action.


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Part of my results found the average temperature to be increasing for the different models.

I also evaluated global temperature maps as part of demonstrating regional variability in warming and the need for downscaled analysis.

Finding something that I am very interested in and actually going through the process of producing results and creating a final report on my findings has been an invaluable experience. My final report is due in two weeks, and the light at the end of the tunnel has become visible, something I would have never thought possible at the beginning of the semester. Conquering such a big undertaking in and of itself has taught me planning and time management skills that I anticipate using for a wide range of other jobs and projects.

Now that I can speak from experience, I think having the opportunity to do an independent long-term project is an integral part of college, both as a learning process itself and as a form of applying what I have learned in the classroom. Many majors at Swat have a culminating element, typically either a thesis or capstone project, that offers an opportunity to delve deeper into an area of interest, and I am looking forward to my engineering capstone project next spring. I am also looking forward to doing summer research at Swarthmore as another way of applying what I have learned in the classroom to real life applications.

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