For the Love of Field Trips

Years ago I was asked to fill out a survey that dealt with the recruitment and retention of geology majors. Specifically, many schools have introduced environmental science majors which have siphoned off potential geologists**, generally draining students from the more “traditional” geology departments. Some departments combine the fields, but many geologists are still interested in how they can boost enrollment. There are boatloads of ideas, of course, from rebranding, reforming the course tracks and requirements, emphasizing non-academic career paths, and putting more emphasis on the introductory courses where you might sway the undecided. For me though, the best way to think about this questions is to simply ask those of us who decided to become geologists what exactly drew us to the science. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but like many I knew damn near nothing about geology until I was sitting in my first introductory course, a field requirement, my first year in college.

A picture from my first long-form field trip, Capitol Reef NP.

A picture from my first long-form field trip, Capitol Reef NP.

So if I ask myself that question, “why did I want to become a geologist?”, there is really one answer that stands above the rest…..field trips. Now the actual work of being a geologist isn’t that similar to what an 18-year old does on a field trip, but what these trips did for me was open up an entire world of scientific questions, bizarre landscapes, methods of inquiry, and unique personalities that I wanted to be a part of. I lucked into a college and a program that did a lot of the normal field trips; we had weekend trips around the upper midwest, and fall- and spring-break trips to the Boundary Waters and North Shore of Lake Superior. The big one though, was that every May, the morning after graduation, we’d pack up our 16 passenger vans and head out for a 2-week trip to somewhere totally different than the rolling hills of glacial debris and Ordovician limestone quarries that surrounded our campus. My first trip, and the one that made me decide to pursue geology, was to the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau. Other trips included the New England Coast, Rio Grande Rift, and Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra.

Delicate Arch. I saw this for the first time and started reading Desert Solitaire on a field trip

Delicate Arch. I saw this for the first time and started reading Desert Solitaire on a field trip

My school wasn’t big or rich, but the department managed to do these trips and keep the costs very low for the students. We cooked our own food, and usually ended up needing less than $200 to cover the entire trip, $100 to help offset gas, and the rest for food. I figured this was a normal thing for a geology department to do, and that when I went to schools with larger endowments, more resources, and more majors, that these trips would be ubiquitous. So when I realized how rare these types of trips are, cheap, long, and open to anyone who has passed an introductory course, my immediate thought was that if you want to increase the number of majors, then pack up the vans!

So why do I love field trips so much? Let’s begin…

There are of course different types of field experiences, and I’ll categorize them broadly into field work, field camp, and field trips. There is overlap, but there are some aspects of each category that I feel makes them distinct.

White Sands NM

White Sands NM

Field Work is hard. It is often awesome, but it I can also be very, very, hard. You are often in a small group (2-6) or alone (avoid if possible), and are in the field for a few days to a few months. Your job can vary, but often includes some combination of taking measurements, collecting samples, mapping, and making more generalized observations. You are often on a strict schedule, and try to go out and work even if the weather is terrible. You can spend a lot of time in relatively unknown areas, and spend a lot of time searching for interesting things. You need a ton of prep work before you head into the field, both scientifically and logistically. Field work is done by people who are geologists, and who are working on a research project.

Tufa Towers in Mono Lake

Tufa Towers in Mono Lake

Field Camp is a class. It can also be both hard and awesome. In the U.S., this is typically some off-campus experience, up to 2 months long, where you learn how to do field work. You are often working in areas where the professors know a lot, and where they have designed the exercises to progressively introduce the students to the skills and concepts they’ll need to do field work. It is useful even for those who don’t end up as field geologists, because it also teaches you how to read maps, and how to understand the level of extrapolation and interpretation required to make a map. Field camp is most often taken by people who want to become geologists.

The west end of Monarch Canyon, Death Valley NP

The west end of Monarch Canyon, Death Valley NP

Field Trips are just awesome. They are a bear to lead and plan, but if you are a participant, they are just awesome. They are designed to show off the most interesting, important, and unique aspects of a region, and are usually designed by people with extensive knowledge and experience of a particular region. Field trips are for anyone.

 

I contend that field trips are a superb recruiting tool, and I make that assertion based on my own experience.

Lake Tahoe at sunset

Lake Tahoe at sunset

My first year in college I was an 18 year old who wanted to do some sort of outdoorsy sciencey thing with his life. My first idea was biology, largely because I was raised by biologists, and my high school had awesome biologists (including an amazing class full of field trips called The Plants and Animals of California, ahhhh, the pre- standardized test obsessed world of the early 1990’s public high school where faculty had the latitude necessary to inspire students) but effectively no geologists. There was an earth science class, but it wasn’t required, and was mainly pushed to people who had a hard time in science. If you were serious you took anatomy or physics.

Field trip members at the end of a day along the Scottish Coast

Field trip members at the end of a day along the Scottish Coast

 

In my second semester that first-year I took a historical geology class as a requirement. It was a pretty awesome lab class, introductory geology with a focus on fossils, evolution, and paleogeography. We had a variety of field labs, which I liked, but more importantly I had my eyes opened to an entire branch of science that studied the outdoor world but didn’t smell like formaldehyde. As I’ve explained, the geology department at my alma mater ran a long form field trip every year, with the small group of faculty trading off leadership responsibilities. It was open to anyone who’d passed a class, and only cost $100 (plus food, but that was done cheaply). I had an unpaid internship lined up for that summer, but I had 2 weeks to spare, so I figured what the hell.

An Alaskan Fall day looking at huge piles of conglomerate

An Alaskan Fall day looking at huge piles of conglomerate

As a kid, I grew up in California, and spent a lot of my time in the summers in northern Wisconsin. I was familiar with those places, and I love them. But, they did not prepare me for the Seussian landscapes of southern Utah. Sometime between the goosenecks of the San Juan, Delicate Arch, and Sunset over Grand Canyon, I knew that I wanted to spend more time learning about these places, and I knew that geology was a field that would let me do that.

Field trips also give young students a chance to interact less formally with older students and faculty, and usually include days with local geologists. So they can help build community and expose the larger world of earth science. We visited with geologists at active mines, state geologists in the field, graduate students just starting their projects, and faculty from other schools who showed off the local hotspots.

The Racetrack, Death Valley NP.

The Racetrack, Death Valley NP.

The field trips I’ve been able to go on as a graduate student, post-doc, and research scientist continue to reinvigorate my love of earth science. They still do their job, and the people who lead them, organize them, lobby to fund them, and write field trip guides, should be given enormous credit. I’ve even been able to go on some field trips associated with meetings lately, which have also been stupendous. In my experience, field trips are some of the main forces for recruiting geologists, generating collaboration, and developing scientific communities.

As a graduate student, I helped plan a few field trips, and I understand why many programs stopped running as many. They take tons of time to plan, especially the first time. They also take time to lead, which for faculty trying to manage research projects, service, publications, and their own private lives, can be tough. But I contend that they are one of the most effective recruiting tools available.

Fingal's Cave, Isle of Staffa, Scotland.

Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, Scotland.

 

** As an aside, I consider environmental science to be a subset of geology, not something separate. I was told once by a committee member that naming a department of geology and environmental science is the same as naming a department math and calculus. Geologists just need to own it.

*** Also, all of the pictures in this post are ones I took on various field trips.

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