A field trip to the West inspires budding geologists
"Pictures don't do it justice," said junior Tyler Goodman, trying to describe his experience of camping, hiking, and mostly studying the geology of America's western mesas and canyon lands.
It is one thing to read about how some of the Earth's most breathtaking places were formed, to see diagrams in a book, or see photos online, like the ones taken by Goodman and his fellow students. It is another thing to get your boots on the hiking trail and literally get a feel for the environment.
"Seeing geology in the field, for me, was the most important part of becoming a geologist," said Jeff Wilcox, assistant professor of Environmental Studies, who led 14 students on an expedition to New Mexico, Colorado and Utah last summer. This two-credit Regional Field Geology course involved two weeks of fieldwork, with most of the nights spent in tents, and most dinners cooked over an open fire by students.
"We made one stop near Four Corners (where four states meet), at the edge of a 'hog back,' where the rock layers are shaped like a basin," recalled Wilcox. "The students had seen it on a geologic map and modeled it in clay in a lab. Then, with the map open, they got to see it in real life, and I could see them processing the 'a-ha!' moment—to see how and why the rock layers are angled."
"The fieldwork definitely made me more interested in being a geologist," said Goodman. "Books can give a good description, but sometimes the natural rock doesn't fit the exact description. In the field you can see more variation and understand how a certain layer of rock can look different in different regions."
The locales that Wilcox picked for this trip were not only instructive, but also provided some of the most unusual terrain and incredible views in North America. Goodman says that the reward at the end of the strenuous uphill hike to Delicate Arch in Utah was "almost overwhelming. Pictures don't do it justice. It was a feeling of joy actually seeing the otherworldly formations in person, standing beneath the arch, knowing it has taken millions of years to form."
Students maintained their field notebooks, mapped what they saw, and then wrote a geological history of the region, incorporating their observations and notes. Some of the history is striking and recent, at least in geological terms. "We saw lava flows in New Mexico that are only 3,000-4,000 years old—the youngest in the continental U.S.," said Wilcox. "There were probably Native Americans who had to evacuate."
"We also saw rocks that were close to 2 billion years old, from a barren age when there were only single-cell organisms," said Wilcox. "We saw and collected every type of rock you'd want to find. The last day, we went to the post office in Santa Fe, took advantage of the flat-rate boxes, and shipped home 350 pounds of rocks. Everyone was excited about collecting."
Wilcox is planning a different field geology course for this summer, Fossils and Fossil Fuels, which will take students to the coal country of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Geology is a field of study that is growing with the scarcity of readily extractable oil, gas and minerals, and with the awareness of the need for environmental protection. As the prices of oil and of certain minerals rise, there are increased professional opportunities for geologists with mining and petrochemical firms, and also with environmental groups and government agencies. Wilcox says the number of Earth Science majors has more than tripled in recent years.
Sophomore Melissa Wagner was already planning to concentrate in Earth Science when she took the field geology course last summer, and it intensified her interest: "I wanted to experience what I may be doing for a living eventually. And seeing the canyons and the formations that are so different than what we're used to seeing, that was amazing—definitely one of the best experiences I've had in my life."