Field camp a rite of passage for undergraduate geosciences majors

Roman DiBiase, assistant professor of geosciences, leads a field exercise. Credit: Collin Oborn, Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA — Geosciences field camp is a rite of passage for Penn State geosciences students. This past summer, 36 students made the trek out West to investigate the geology of the intermontane western United States.

Field camp is the capstone experience for undergraduate geosciences majors. It is an intensive outdoor course that applies classroom and laboratory training to solving geological problems in the field.

“Field camp is a true capstone experience, where students apply and integrate many of the skills they have learned over the course of their undergraduate education,” said Maureen Feineman, associate research professor and associate head for undergraduate programs in the Department of Geosciences. “They make observations, synthesize information to create a unified big picture from many smaller pieces, create visual representations of their data in the form of geologic maps, and communicate their results in written field reports.”

Geosciences Field Camp 2019 group photo Credit: Collin Oborn, Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

Penn State’s six-week field camp took students across four states, where they had the opportunity to explore diverse geological locations.

Students completed various geologic mapping and stratigraphy exercises where they learned to interpret satellite imagery and topographic data, think critically in 3D, and collect and report geologic data. They also mapped faults and fault scarps, cross-sections and geologic interpretations — all led by faculty mentors.

“Ultimately, we expect students to use the landscape and the surface geology to describe the 3D geometry of geologic features and the spatial and temporal variations in geologic processes,” said Don Fisher, professor of geosciences and one of the faculty mentors.

“If you want to create the most accurate map possible, you had to hustle to every corner of the field site,” said senior Alison Richards.

Students used outcrops, or rock formations visible on the surface, as well as inventories to identify geological features. After mapping in the field, students digitized their maps and completed a written report of the area’s geologic past.

The hands-on exercises were valuable for students, Richards said.

“I felt comfortable with my geology knowledge before I went on the trip,” she said, “but after the first or second day I realized how much there was to learn from applying your knowledge in a real-world setting.”

Experiential learning in the field also entails new challenges and tested their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Snow prevented access to their last field location near Alta, Utah, and the students had to learn a different exercise in a study site that was entirely new to the professors and teaching assistants.

Julia Carr, doctoral student in geosciences and the head teaching assistant for field camp, interacts with students. Credit: Collin Oborn, Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

Julia Carr, a doctoral student in geosciences and the head teaching assistant for field camp, said that these situations helped students to learn in other ways.

“The students are always working together and communicating with their field partner,” she said. “They adapted to different challenges day by day.”

Richards said those challenges brought students together through the field camp experience.

“For one week, we didn’t have running water or electricity,” she said. “We got to camp out and we all got a lot closer. It was very rejuvenating.”

Beyond the rugged surroundings, more than a month of hard work and long days created a sense of accomplishment in the students and instructors alike.

“There’s something amazing about working so hard and feeling exhausted, and then stopping and realizing where you are,” Carr said. “Perhaps you’ve found a new fossil or seen a fascinating rock. You’ve done something. You’ve made it to the top of the mountain.”

In addition to Feineman and Fisher, field camp was led by Erin DiMaggio, assistant research professor in geosciences; Roman DiBiase, assistant professor of geosciences; Kevin Furlong, professor of geosciences; and Andrew Smye, assistant professor of geosciences. In addition to Carr, they were assisted by a team of graduate teaching assistants including Tsai-Wei Chen, Jacob Cipar, Clarissa Crist, Troy Ferland, Kalle Jahn, Kirsty McKenzie and Collin Oborn.

Last Updated December 16, 2019