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March 30, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Climb to the Top: Field Camp Puts Seniors to the Test

Allison Durkee ’13 has already been to the top of the world. At least that’s what the wooden signpost said.

“Top of the World Store and Hotel … supplies and gas.” Somewhere in the northern Rockies.

But there was no hotel for Durkee and the other students in the geology capstone course. They were camping their way from West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, ending up in cabins at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association Field Station in Montana.

They’d been preparing for years with field trips and coursework, but the capstone course was putting their knowledge to the test. They would have to map terrain, envision how it might have looked in the past, and infer what might lie below the surface.

“Field camp opened my eyes to the fact that I don’t belong behind a desk constantly,” says Durkee, who graduated in 2013. “I recently accepted a job that has me traveling all over the U.S. and working in the field. I might have chosen something different if I hadn’t gone to Yellowstone.”

“Every single day was an incredible experience,” she adds. “Even if there were some difficulties trekking in the wilderness where we would map, I loved every second of it.”

Field Camp

A required course for all geology majors, GEOL 4910: Field Geology—affectionately known as “field camp”—is a capstone experience that brings everything they have learned to bear while working in the rugged terrain around Yellowstone.

Field camp starts in the classroom on the Ohio University campus in Athens, where students learn field techniques. Then they test their skills on a field trip to West Virginia before heading west.

The group takes several days to reach Montana, camping in tents along the way. The fields station at Yellowstone is a bit more comfortable, offering cabins, a staffed dining hall, and laboratory and classroom facilities.

‘Geology in the Raw’

But the real classroom is outside in the northern Rocky Mountains.

“It’s the first time most students are confronted with geology in the raw,” says Dr. Doug Green, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences.

Days start early — the wake-up bell rings at 6:30 a.m. — and last until 10 or 11 p.m. After breakfast, students pack lunches and are off for the field by 8 a.m. They spend eight hours exploring the terrain and examining rock formations. After dinner back at camp, students head for the library or study hall to work on their projects: detailed maps of the areas they have explored.

“They do field mapping where they’re looking at outcrops, orientation, and the geometry of things,” Green said. “We’re not pointing and saying, ‘Look at this, look at that.’ They have to be able to figure out what they’re looking at, what is significant, what is insignificant. It’s always a challenge to have all this information and decide what is critical to explain the big story of what’s going on.”

Being able to envision how the land looked in ages past is vital to a lot of geology work, particularly in the booming oil and gas industry.

“In petroleum geology, almost nobody is doing surface mapping anymore,” Green said. “They’re doing the same thing based on wells that are widely spaced and 20,000 feet deep.” But drillers can’t see underground, so they rely on the expert observations of geologists who can infer from the surface what lies underground. The same goes for cleanup of areas contaminated by chemicals leaching from underground tanks or that were spilled and sank into the ground.

“If you’ve got a contamination problem, you have to figure out the orientation of soils, rocks, and the subsurface without actually looking at it,” Green said. “You do that by looking at the surface and figuring out the three-dimensional configuration of the geology.”

That’s a skill that can’t be taught in a classroom, Green said.

‘You Literally Live and Breathe the Rocks’

“When I talk to people in these companies who are looking for geologists, they say field camp is most important part,” Green said.

The days at field camp are long, but for participants like graduate student Jen Bauer, the effort is worth it.

“At field camp, you literally live and breathe the rocks,” she said. “You hike for eight or nine hours a day and are completely immersed in the geology of the mapping area. You have to recall knowledge from nearly every prior class to get through the projects. I am much more confident in my abilities as a geologist after field camp.”

Students work in teams of two or more, depending on the size of the area they’re exploring. “It’s largely for safety reasons,” Green said. “All the teams have walkie talkies, and we give them the first aid/safety talk. Communication is key — they have to be in radio contact. They can’t have earbuds with music going on.”

Students have to keep their wits about them; it’s easy to get lost, even when you can see your destination, as Durkee and her team discovered while trying to return to the vans on their last day of field work.

“We spotted the vans far across the valley we were in,” she said. “We headed toward them and after a while heard rushing water. We were going to have to cross a river — but how?” The team set off upriver to look for a safe crossing point, eventually finding a log that spanned the water … and just happened to have a handy rope attached for help in traversing the distance.

“We were so excited,” Durkee said.

As soon as they crossed, they were stopped by a logger who asked if the students were part of a mapping class. “Our instructors had been there not more than five minutes earlier and had just left,” Durkee said. Theirs was the only team that found the log bridge; the instructors picked up the other teams at a more easily accessed spot.

“Our instructors had figured it would be a one-in-a-million chance of any of the teams locating that one crossing,” Durkee said. “We felt very accomplished.”

For many students, field camp is the defining experience of their college careers.

“The entire experience was interesting and fun,” Bauer said. “On the way to Montana we made a series of stops at national parks and monuments both to learn by examining the rocks and to be tourists. I’m personally hoping to stay in academia, but I wouldn’t mind teaching a field course one day!”

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