It's the time of year when school children everywhere return to their classrooms, where they are frequently greeted with the classic "What did you do on your summer vacation?" essay-writing assignment If presented with the same exercise, UI faculty and staff could write volumes. Each fall, Inside Illinois receives news from a number of enterprising UI employees who immerse themselves in special projects during the summer months - often in faraway or unusual places. And while faculty members are, doubtless, among those most likely to pursue projects far-removed from their usual environs, they're not alone. The following articles provide a sampling of the kinds of work-related extracurricular activities and field trips undertaken by academic professional staff members this summer. Exploring the art and culture of China Thanks to the UI's Linda Duke and Carol Fisher, China was opened up in new ways this summer for 34 travelers who accompanied them on a two-week art-and-culture tour that included stops that would never be included in a commercial tour package. Co-sponsored by the Krannert Art Museum, where Duke is director of education, and the School of Art and Design, where Fisher is a professor and coordinator of continuing education and public service in the visual arts, the trip was carefully planned to include standard, must-see sights - such as the Great Wall and Beijing's Forbidden City - as well as a rare visit to the home of one of the country's most prominent artists and an expedition to an ancient royal burial site, currently under excavation and off-limits to the general public. Duke said she spent a year making art connections in preparation for the trip. Probably the most important connection was her association with Urbana native Lark Yulan Huang. Lark has been working with a researcher involved in the excavation work being carried out by China's Archaeological Institute of Shanxi Province at Xian, the ancient Chinese capital. Through Lark, Duke arranged for the American tourists to get a peek at a major archaeological site that has not yet been seen even by Western scholars. "I've been fascinated by China since I was a kid," said Duke, who, as an adult has studied and taught Asian art history. "China has such a rich humanistic tradition - the poetry, the art." Duke said she jumped when she was offered the chance to serve as one of the tour leaders because, "I love sharing things I've already discovered about China with other people." During their activity-packed Chinese odyssey, the tour group - which included 23 people loosely associated with the UI and 11 affiliated with a prep school in New Jersey - traveled mostly by bus, and by air between cities, "with the exception of one very long train trip that nearly did us in," Duke said. In all, the group covered a lot of ground. They began their adventure in Beijing, and also made a day trip to the Great Wall and visited the emperor's summer palace. Then, they boarded the train for their 20-hour train trip to historic Xian. Then it was on to Guilin - in the heart of rice-paddy country - where they took in the scenery on a Li River cruise. Next, they visited Fuzhou artist Chen Zhongsen at his home and studio. From there, they moved on to Suzhou - known as "the Venice of the East" - where they visited Daoist temples and gardens and met with local artists. The trek ended in Shanghai, with a walk on the Bund, the city's historic waterfront lined with grand, European-style buildings. "For many people, the high point of the trip was visiting the tomb of the fourth early Han emperor and the tomb of his consort, or head wife, at Xian," Duke said. The burial site is "a lot like the Pyramids of Egypt," she noted, with the main chamber laid out like a house. Buried around the main chamber, archaeologists have discovered thousands of clay figures. The figures - mostly males, with some animals and chariots - represent the emperor's army and were buried with him to stand guard over the tomb. Because the research in progress at the site hasn't yet been published, the American visitors weren't allowed to take photographs, Duke said. No matter, she said; the thrill of being privy to such an undertaking probably couldn't be captured on film anyway. "One of the most exciting things to me about our visit to Xian was the nearby farm village of Zhang, where the archaeologists stayed," Duke said. The rural village was virtually untouched by time. "Some of the villagers live in caves built into the side of the hill," Duke said. "When I asked one old man about his cave home, he said, 'Cool in summer, warm in winter.' It was that simple." Probably the second-ranking highlight of the trip, Duke said, was visiting artist Chen Zhongsen at his home and studio. "We had a wonderful time," she said. "He played a traditional two-string violin, called an erhu; demonstrated calligraphy; and talked about Daoism and about his watercolor landscape paintings, which hung on the walls throughout the house. Duke described Chen's paintings as "ecstatic, mystical, colorful depictions of mountains and water." Chen also introduced the visitors to an unusual Chinese art form called microcarving. Using a small metal pick, the artist carves calligraphy and landscapes in miniature on stones and other things. To the amazement of all who see the carvings, the images and characters - when glimpsed under a magnifiying glass, and sometimes even a microscope - are flawless. Chen showed the group a special microcarving that featured a traditional verse by a poet who wrote about his wife's reaction to finding her first gray hair. Chen had carved the poem on a stretched strand of his own wife's hair. Duke said when Chen creates a microcarving, "he goes into a trance - a deep meditation." And, she added, executes the carving with his eyes closed. Chen will visit the UI this month in conjunction with two exhibitions of his work. His paintings will be on view at the Krannert Art Museum from Sept. 8 through Nov. 6; his microcarvings will be featured in a separate exhibition, which runs Sept. 18 through Dec. 9 at the World Heritage Museum. In conjunction with the shows, Chen will give two free public lecture-demonstrations. At the first, set for 7 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Krannert Art Museum auditorium, Chen will be joined by Chungliang Al Huang, a Champaign resident and director of the Living Tao Foundation. At 3 p.m. Sept. 18 at the World Heritage Museum, he will demonstrate and discuss his microcarving technique. ********************************* Introducing 'intelligently nonconformist' high school students to science While colleagues pursued pet projects and explored terra incognita, Sam Panno and Keith Hackley spent part of their summer on terra firma. That is, with the exception of a few days when they were up to their ears in cattails in a wetland area of northern Illinois. Panno and Hackley, professional scientists with the Illinois State Geological Survey located at the UI, directed one of a number of summer research expeditions for "intelligently nonconformist" high school students, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. The innovative program - geared toward highly talented and motivated students interested in the arts and humanities - offered about 60 such students from across the nation a chance to explore opportunities in various fields of scientific research. Panno and Hackley were invited by the center to lead an expedition, and eagerly accepted. "I thought it sounded like a neat opportunity to work with a group of young people and to give them an introduction to science," said Hackley, an isotope geochemist. As it turned out, for the nine students who participated in the Illinois project, "it opened up an area they hadn't considered." Part of the beauty of the project, which involved analyzing the long-term effects of urbanization on the biodiversity of adjacent wetlands near Crystal Lake, was that it introduced the students to a variety of related fields. "It involved biology, geology, hydrogeology and water chemistry," Hackley said, noting that "it was real applied research." The students' crash course was derived from an ongoing Geological Survey study that Panno has been working on, which involves collecting data from the site every two years "to look at the long-term degradation of the wetlands and changes in the hydrology associated with the adjacent development." The overall effect of the 10-day program was to expose the students to a highly concentrated example of what it's like to be a scientist, and included hands-on experience in just about every phase of work associated with a research project. Before immersing themselves in the project, however, the students needed some deep background, since none of them had ever studied geology. So, they attended lectures on basic subjects such as general geology, glacial geology and hydrogeology, conducted by other Survey staff members. And they received instruction on how to use various instruments and field equipment from Geological Survey scientist Ivan Krapac. With a little more knowledge in tow, they set off for Sterne's Woods Park, where they spent their first day hiking around to familiarize themselves with the area. They also listened to a guest lecturer who told them about wetland plants, ecosystems and the problems associated with preservation of wetlands. They spent the next two days in the field, collecting water samples, taking field measurements of water chemistry and water levels, and documenting data on plant density, vigor and diversity. Then it was back to the UI, where Panno, Hackley and other Geological Survey scientists assisted them with the chemical analysis of water samples and directed the students in such tasks as documentation, record-keeping and statistical analysis of their data. Then, the students learned how to make sense of their findings and prepared brief written and oral reports on their work, in much the same manner that a scientist would write a paper and present it at a professional meeting. What made the experience of directing the program especially rewarding for Hackley and Panno was the students' genuine interest and enthusiasm for the work. "The students were environmentally concerned and aware," Panno said. "And they were excited that they could actually help do something about the environmental problems they were learning about. They could go in the fields, look at the plants, and see how the plants changed with the effects of urbanization." One of the most immediate observations they made - even before returning from the field and analyzing their data - was that certain plant species, most notably cattails, were proliferating in areas exposed to road salt and effluent from septic tanks. While cattails appear to be sodium-chloride tolerant, other plant species that thrive in wetland conditions - such as white lady slippers and sawtooth sunflowers - are not, Panno said. And many of the native plants, some of which are endangered species in Illinois, are succumbing to the effects of human encroachment. Looking back on the experience, Panno and Hackley agree that the project was an overwhelming success for all concerned - including themselves. One of the most educational aspects for them was that it gave them a chance to develop teaching skills - something that neither researcher brought to the project initially. What made the task especially easy, both agreed, was the exceptional abilities and maturity of the students who participated. "It was great working with these students," Hackley said. "They were bright; they had good questions; and they paid attention to what we were saying. We pushed them as far as we could push, and they just kept going. It was unanimous that they got more out of the experience than any of them had expected." One of the students, Emma Westermann-Clark, said it all herself in a letter she wrote to Hackley after she returned home: "... My two weeks in Illinois were overall the best two weeks of my life. I learned so much more than I can say, and I will definitely take geology courses in college. ... Even my parents say I am different since CTY; nobody knows how or why, but I feel extremely lucky to have participated. ... You have awakened my interest, and I try to look at the world differently." Panno said his involvement has caused him to view his own world differently. "One of the things that struck me," he said, "was that after having instructors who would guide me in my research and career, I felt like I was finally taking the initiative to communicate scientific concepts to the next generation." ******************************************* Exploring life-and death-in the Homeric period To many at the UI, Barbara Bohen is well-known as the director of the university's World Heritage Museum. Not so widely known is the fact that Bohen also is a respected archaeological scholar, whose continuing research of early Greek civilization is contributing new ideas about life - and death - in the Homeric period. Since the museum was closed this summer, Bohen used the time-out to her advantage. With the support of a fellowship awarded by the Beckman Institute, Bohen traveled to Athens to tie up some loose ends on her research of one of the Dark Ages' most historically significant burial grounds, an area at the wall of the ancient city known as the Athenian Kerameikos. "The research concerns Athenian ceramic burial markers of the 10th to 8th centuries BC, a period commonly known as the Iron Age," Bohen said. "Although there is a vital oral tradition that includes the poetry of Homer, the period is without writing until its very end. Consequently, the archaeological record of the period is highly significant in mapping the history and culture of the period." Since few remains of actual dwellings exist from this period, Bohen said, "most of our knowledge of Athenian life at this time must come from close observation of the contents and distribution patterns of tombs." "My task has been to reconstruct the totality of the Iron Age burial ground," which, she said, was the resting spot for Athenian aristocrats - layer upon layer of them - for many centuries. "The whole area had been destroyed by excavations in the 6th Century and again when the Romans attacked the city in the 1st century B.C. We just had to pick up the pieces and put them back together." Of particular interest to Bohen - and the real focus of her research - are the large, highly ornate ceramic vessels called kraters, which were placed above the tombs of "well-born, adult males" during the Homeric period, which spanned the 8th and 9th centuries. Bohen said the vessels probably served ritualistic as well as social functions. She speculates that some may have been used to mix water and wine at parties and other gatherings, while others - which had holes in the bottom - were used in mortuary rituals, probably to pour libations offered to the dead. The kraters placed over tombs also conveyed the deceased's social status. Among other things, she said, the kraters "were a symbol of the fact that they're the male aristocrats who attended the Symposium," the original forum where Greek noblemen met for convivial purposes, and at which they engaged in the intellectual sport of verbal volleyball - among other things. At the Symposium - the second cousin, twice removed, to today's Moose Lodge - the men customarily loosened their lips with wine, which was mixed with water in a large krater. The tone and tenor of the gatherings varied, Bohen said, noting that the water-to-wine ratio was adjusted accordingly to fit the circumstances. Bohen said the tombs of well-heeled Athenian women from the same period were similarly marked with huge vessels called amphoras. Among those that have been reconstructed, she said, was one that measured 2 meters - "taller than me." Bohen noted that the European tradition of marking burial sites with gravestones can probably be traced to the early Greek's placement of mortuary kraters and amphoras. Much of the material Bohen is studying was excavated over a 40-year period by German archaeologists associated with the Athenian branch of the German Archaeological Institute and originates from a site in the Kerameikos called Hagia Triada. German involvement in the excavations began before World War II. During the war, Bohen said, "the work was carried out by a fellow with a swastika on his armband." When the Nazis had to beat a hasty retreat from Athens at the end of the war, they left behind "box after box" of the pottery sherds that they had unearthed. Today, the excavated material and records from the Kerameikos digs are maintained by the German institute in Athens, which has published a series o f books documenting the work that has been done. Bohen's research will be published next year as a part of that series.