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Out here, a geology textbook is all around

Out here, a geology textbook is all around

Monday, November 04, 2019

The American West is where geology is laid bare. The landscapes of the region surrounding Fort Lewis College and the forces that shape them are here for the viewing – and the studying. They are stunning, dramatic, beautiful, and fascinating. And they’re where FLC students go to get their hands dirty studying geology. 

This past May, 17 students spent the month at field camps in the mountains and deserts of Colorado and Utah, mapping, measuring, plotting, outlining cross-sections, and figuring out for themselves how Earth’s processes work – while they also faced the elements that shape the Earth around them. 

“The students managed field work in sun, rain, wind, and snow,” laughs Professor of Geosciences Kim Hannula. “But they still made great interpretations and kept a positive attitude, even when it snowed in late May below 6,500 feet in southern Utah.”

Led by several faculty from the Geosciences Department, students traveled and explored Utah’s Moab area, Henry Mountains, Goblin Valley State Park, Green River, and Cedar City, as well as the Dolores River, Colorado National Monument, and Big Gypsum Valley, in western Colorado. They looked at features from sedimentary bedrock affected by salt tectonics and evidence of the Ancestral Rockies, to faults and thrust-faulted rocks. 

“Other universities come to Durango in the summer, so their students can spend a month learning in the same landscape where our students learn for four years,” says Hannula. “Because we are here in Durango, our students can do far more advanced thinking and problem-solving, so that by the time they graduate they’ve got a level of independence that is usually not developed until graduate school.”

Summer field camp is a pivotal experience for our students.

Assistant Professor of Geosciences Jon Harvey

After completing FLC’s geology field school, senior Geology major Madison Lewis spent part of her summer in the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains’ Weminuche Wilderness Area, working on field research for her senior thesis.

“I backpacked into my study areas so I could spend entire days looking for the best samples,” she says. “I enjoyed it! On every trip, no matter how strenuous it was, I felt so very lucky that I was given this opportunity to explore. Sample collection takes you places you'd never see or push yourself to do that hold their own secret beauty.”

“All in all, this field work made me a stronger geologist, and my field skills enhanced exponentially,” Lewis explains. “I learned many of these ideas senior geologists describe but don't understand until one goes through it. And I feel much more confident in my knowledge, or knowing that if I don't know I can find out.”

Assistant Professor of Geosciences Jon Harvey took students to the remote and wild Henry Mountains for a week starting May 8. “We camped at a spot with a hundred-mile view across the Utah desert,” he says. “Each morning students woke up, prepared breakfast and lunch, then headed out for a full day of geologic mapping on foot. Working in pairs, students spent five days making geologic maps of a four-square mile area on the south flank of Mount Hillers, in the Henry Mountains.” 

By the end of the summer field camps, students had compiled high-quality geologic maps and cross-sectional diagrams of the areas they studied, which required the discussions among themselves and with faculty that weeks of camping and hiking across landscapes together encourages. 

“Summer field camp is a pivotal experience for our students,” Harvey says. 
 

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