Vol. 1, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2005

A Natural Laboratory for Teaching

by Deborah Galyan

This spring geologists Michael Hamburger and John Rupp take their fourth group of students to the otherworldly landscapes of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain chain of California for a hands-on introduction to basic geological processes.

Imagine yourself a freshman again, slightly bleary-eyed, having just completed your first year of college—all those projects and final exams are behind you, and the trees on campus are dressed in the delicate pastels of spring. Maybe you’d feel a little glum about trudging off to class on the first day of summer session, so close on the heels of the academic year, unless you were lucky enough to be on your way to Geological Sciences G188 Volcanoes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada: Geology and Natural Heritage of the Long Valley Caldera.

To get to class, you’d hop in a van around 4:30 in the morning and catch a 6:30 a.m. flight to Las Vegas. There, another van awaits you. In less than an hour’s drive, you are surrounded by ancient, eroded dunes of sandstone, red rock canyons, cacti, and yucca. Though it’s not quite noon, you’re almost two thousand miles from Bloomington, and it’s time for class.

Welcome to G188 (also known as Collins Living-Learning Center L130), a three-credit, Summer Session I course that introduces students to the geology and natural history of the eastern Sierra Nevada, and more.

“It’s quite an eye-opening experience,” says Michael Hamburger, Professor of Geological Sciences, who created G188 with his colleague John Rupp, Assistant Director for Research, Indiana Geological Survey. “Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock, especially for those students who’ve never been out West. Most of the students are fairly sleepy until we’re off the plane, and when they finally discover that we’re out in the middle of the Nevada desert, they feel as if we’ve taken them to another planet.”

The course is the product of creative talking and thinking on the part of Hamburger, Rupp, and Carl Ziegler, director emeritus of the Collins Living-Learning Center. Several years ago, Ziegler told his colleague John Rupp that he was interested in creating an experiential, educational travel course for Collins LLC. “Carl wanted the course to offer some of the same intensity that foreign language immersion courses can offer students,” Rupp explains. “I had already had some experience with ‘geo-tourism,’ taking people, particularly professional geologists, to various geologically significant places around the world. And I knew that Michael Hamburger would be very interested in such a class, because of its creative teaching potential.”

This spring, Hamburger and Rupp, along with Associate Instructor Anne Hereford, will transport their fourth group of 14 to 18 students to the otherworldly landscapes of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain chain of California.

“We keep returning to the area because it’s such a wonderful natural laboratory for teaching,” Hamburger explains. “There are spectacular examples of almost every geologic phenomenon. In fact, the most beautiful glacial landforms—the very ones that illustrate our textbooks—come from the central Sierra Nevada. This is how I’ve always dreamed of teaching geology, to really dig into the material in a very substantive way with a smaller group of students. It’s a transformative way to learn.”

“No textbook photo can compare to the actual experience of traveling across the desert in western Nevada, over the border into eastern California,” observes Rupp, an experienced field geologist who describes himself as “heavy on logistics.” He plans each leg of the journey in advance: preparing the necessary equipment, arranging for lodging at field research stations, and negotiating educational opportunities with the National Park Service.

“We’ve chosen sites that are graphically open and demonstrative of the geologic processes that we want the students to observe,” Rupp explains. “They’re such beautiful, dramatic examples, in which the students can’t help but have epiphanies.”

In Yosemite National Park, students observe enormous expanses of polished and striated granites sculpted by glaciers. They spend days exploring the Long Valley Caldera, the site of a gargantuan volcanic eruption that took place 760,000 years ago. They marvel at obsidian domes—whole mountains made out of volcanic glass—and climb down into fractures produced by ancient tectonic motions.

And even an outdoor classroom can host an occasional guest speaker—each year the instructors arrange for several guest scientists to meet the students on site for discussions on specific topics such as alpine ecology and the geophysical monitoring of volcanic activity. The students learn about plants and animals in the area, including the rare, 5,000 year-old bristlecone pines, which exist only above 10,000 feet in the mountains of the basin range. Environmental science and the politics of land use and preservation are also addressed.

Field study in the science of geology is not a new idea. The IU Bloomington Department of Geology operates one of the nation’s most renowned field schools, the Judson Mead Geologic Field Station in Cardwell, Montana, where geology majors from IU, as well as other academic institutions, typically take a six-week summer course between their junior and senior years.

What’s new about G188 is that it offers this kind of intensive field experience to students of all majors and backgrounds, including freshmen and sophomores.

“The students are an interesting mix of arts and humanities majors, as well as prospective science majors,” Hamburger says. “We’ve taken ‘outdoor’ people, who love backpacking and hiking, and some who were scared to death of nature. The trip involves some fairly challenging hikes in terrain that definitely pushes some of their limits. But I believe that for the 45 or so students who have taken the course, it has been a life-changing experience.”

To prepare for the field trip, G188 students participate in a spring-semester seminar that introduces them to the basic geological processes they will observe and study on the trip: plate tectonics, mountain building, earthquakes, volcanoes, and volcanic rock. The seminar also starts the group interaction process.

“Group dynamics is a very important aspect of the class, and sometimes a challenging one,” Hamburger explains. “Getting along with one another is crucial in the field. We work together, learn together, cook and clean up together, brush our teeth together, and sometimes depend on one another for our safety. So, the group experience is as much a part of the growth and learning process as is the science in this course.”

One of the main goals of the course is to heighten the students’ abilities for scientific observation. “We want to give them some insights into how scientists make observations in a field setting,” Hamburger explains, “and how they integrate them into a new understanding of the way the natural world functions.”

“I had never studied geology,” says Preeti Veerlapati, a business major, who took the course last year. “I had a friend who had taken G188 and couldn’t stop talking about it, so I decided that I wanted to try it.” Veerlapati was impressed and somewhat unnerved on the first day of class, staring down at the ant-like people and cars from high atop Dante’s View in Death Valley National Park. “It was scary at first,” she admits. “But the examples of the concepts we were learning were right there before our eyes, and that was amazing.”

The course isn’t just about sightseeing, Veerlapati points out. There’s hard work involved in recording and explaining what kinds of processes could have produced specific features in the terrain, a kind of geological detective work. “The class isn’t just about what you see,” she explains, “it’s about thinking hard about what you see, and that was challenging.”

The process of careful observation and interpretation is the indispensable tool of field study and “the classic dance step of science,” as Rupp describes it. “We want to slow the students down and prevent them from settling for easy answers; it takes critical thinking to nurse out a hypothesis.”

The students frequently work in small groups, making notes and drawings in their field notebooks, then join together for group discussions and readings. “One trick geologists use is to focus intensely on a particular aspect of a challenging landscape,” Hamburger says. “We get the students up close and personal with a particular rock outcrop, for example, so that they can really see the individual cobbles—the shapes, colors, and textures. Then we talk about what kinds of geological processes might explain what they’ve observed.”

“Michael and John were constantly asking questions of us, trying to work with us to find the answer, instead of just telling us,” explains Sam Shepson, a sophomore who studies political science and near eastern languages and cultures. “The entire trip had an aura of discovery.”

Hamburger describes how much he enjoys that point each year when his students discover the huge basin created by the collapsed dome of the ancient volcano at the Long Valley Caldera. “It gradually dawns on them just how big this monstrous eruption must have been, as we observe the volume of material that was erupted,” he explains. “It’s a thrill to realize that we are at the site of one of the great geological events in the history of our continent.”

At Horseshoe Lake, California, Katherine Neff was fascinated by large patches of dead trees, which, she learned, were caused by high concentrations of carbon dioxide in soil gas from nearby Mammoth Mountain. “I wrote my final paper for the class on the volcanic emissions of Mammoth Mountain, but it’s hard to narrow the trip to even one or two most memorable experiences. Our days were stuffed with interesting geology.”

Neff had just finished her freshman year and was considering switching her major to geology when she signed up for the course last year. “I wanted to get an idea of what geology was like outside of a classroom setting,” she explains. “After the trip I was positive that I wanted to be a geology major.”

The course also offers an opportunity for students to begin to understand the daunting complexities of land use and water management issues, according to Rupp, whose work involves both igneous geology and natural resource issues. “Whether the issue is geothermal power, mineral extraction or water use, an experience like this can help students see that simplistic thinking doesn’t contribute solutions to complex issues. Taking the opportunity to weave in land-use issues helps them begin to understand that all of civilization is a compromise.”

For Adam Schau, a senior who took the course in 2002, it was the delicate balance between species preservation and the pressing needs of civilization that captured his attention. Schau, who studies political science and business, was intrigued by the politics surrounding Mono Lake, an important bird sanctuary, and the site of a recent landmark battle between environmentalists and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For decades, the streams running into Mono Lake had been tapped to provide water for the greater Los Angeles area, depleting the water level more than 40 feet by the 1980s. Nesting gulls and migratory birds were threatened by the deteriorating conditions until water diversions were halted in the 1990s.

The class heard speakers from the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental group that lobbied to protect the lake, as well as representatives from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Understanding the controversy was one of the most meaningful things to me on the trip,” Schau says. “We read quite a lot about the chemistry of the lake, but we also tasted it and swam in it. The geology was interesting, but learning how a committee of people helped to protect the lake—which contains amazing prehistoric organisms that aren’t found anywhere else—was particularly inspiring.”

The comments of Hamburger and Rupp’s grateful and effusive former students confirm that this carefully crafted, intensely challenging course is an ideal introduction to geology. And both the instructors and former students feel it offers something more—an opportunity to pause and reflect on their lives and on the nature of life on the planet, a glimpse of the “big picture.”

Shepson describes his experience this way: “It made me want to see the world. Not only to explore it, but to understand it. To understand how the world used to be, what made it how it is now, and what it will likely be in the future. Every morning I would wake up excited about what was to come. The trip made me feel excited about my life, and I think it really has helped to motivate me, regardless of the career path I choose.”

Deborah Galyan is a novelist and freelance writer in Bloomington.

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