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UW-Eau Claire geography students explore the Southwest during immersion trip

November 29, 2012
UW-Eau Claire geography students set up ground- penetrating radar to study the Fort Ord Dunes in Marina, Calif.
Students hiked deep into the Grand Canyon on the
10-day immersion trip to the Southwest.

EAU CLAIRE — Sandy beaches, ocean views, huge sand dunes and military bunkers were the backdrop for part of a recent University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geography field seminar trip to the Southwest region of the United States.

A student field research project at the Fort Ord Dunes in Marina, Calif., a former World War I military post that was converted into a state park in 2009, concentrated on how giant coastal sand dunes formed over cement bunkers, and was the first research to be conducted in the new park.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Meghan Kelly, a geography major from Mankato, Minn., said studying the dunes was her favorite part of the trip.

"I am most interested in cultural and human geography so my research focused on the geographical history of the dunes and the human impact on the environment," Kelly said. "Dunes form in a certain way, but the geography of this area makes for a more complicated process to study."

The class collaborated with graduate students from California State University, East Bay, and used ground penetrating radar to study the layering effects of the dunes. The students from both universities continue to share and analyze data that was collected for their research, which will be presented at UW-Eau Claire's Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (21st Student Research Day) and the 2013 Association of American Geographers conference.

"Having the opportunity to actually use tools, such as GPR, in the field is a great skill to add to my resume," Kelly said. "None of us have ever used it before, so it was an exciting experience and really took learning beyond the classroom."

Dr. Harry Jol, professor of geography, and Martin Goettl, geospatial technology facilitator, stressed the importance of giving students field experience during their undergraduate education.

"Students developed and processed information differently because they experienced it," Goettl said. "They gained true knowledge of what they were working with and had hands-on experience with geospatial technology. They also learned how to communicate with each other about the different aspects of geography. It's a huge growing tool to take forward with them."

Phil Larson, a 2008 UW-Eau Claire alumnus and 2000 graduate of Prescott High School who currently is pursuing his doctorate, accompanied the class on the recent trip. Larson participated in two field seminar experiences during his undergraduate career, one of which was with Jol in the Southwest desert. Larson graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a comprehensive major in geography-resource management and a minor in geology. He is currently a doctoral student at Arizona State University, working as a geomorphologist with a main research focus on landscape evolution, alluvial landform development and granitic landscape processes within desert environments. He emphasized how the field seminars helped prepare him for graduate school.

"I thoroughly believe that those trips and the research process conducted in each allowed me to become successful as a Ph.D. student today," Larson said. "Not only did they provide useful methodological approaches to varied topics within earth science, they were my introduction to the rigors of the academic publication and research process. These projects and courses were what made me recognize that I wanted to continue on as an academic earth scientist and the experience certainly put me a step ahead of my colleagues when I entered graduate school."

On the trip, Larson shared his knowledge of the Southwest desert with the class and encouraged each of them to use critical thinking skills while in the field.

"I have previously published on, or am working on now, several of the stops we traveled through, so I hope my research in those locations helped them to understand the dynamic landscapes they were observing," Larson said. "I also hope that one of my main points, to think on your own and to be skeptical as a scientist resonated. I have often found that textbook explanations, or even the status quo answer from the scientific community, may not be the only answer."

Larson certainly made an impression on senior geography major Jackson Becker, Rochester, Minn., who plans to follow Larson's path to graduate school.

"I love to learn, and seeing what Phil is doing in graduate school made me really excited," Becker said. "It was great learning about different perspectives on geography related topics. This trip has taught me to look at things in more detail, which is really important in geography. I feel I have become more confident in the field I am passionate about and that will only help me in graduate school."

The class also traveled to other geographically significant places of interest during the 10-day immersion experience, such as Yosemite, Death Valley and Zion national parks. The grand finale however, was at the Grand Canyon, where Larson introduced the class to his colleague Dr. John Douglass, a prominent geographer with alternative theories on the development of the canyon.

Like Larson, Douglass encouraged future geographers to look beyond what is in textbooks and think about new ways of explaining geographical phenomena. Douglass presented the class with the "lake overflow theory," which suggests that over millions of years, rivers from mountains to the east of the Grand Canyon poured water and sediment into a large basin in the northeast side of the canyon, eventually spilling over a low point in the ridge causing the formation.

Becker said he was fascinated by the theory Douglas presented. "He is a great lecturer and I really got to see geography in action," Becker said. "I always thought science was all figured out, but then here is this scientist teaching us about a cutting-edge theory. It was an amazing experience and my favorite part of the trip."

Field research trips, such as this provided at UW-Eau Claire, are not common among undergraduate schools. Immersion experiences receive financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment, which is a student-supported differential tuition increase that is invested in academic programs to add value and enhance student learning. In fact, Jol pointed out that even most doctoral students do not get this kind of field experience.

"Opportunities for field research are what make UW-Eau Claire such a unique university," Jol said. "Besides developing academic skills, students learned how to work as a team under intense conditions. We had some very long days in the heat along with the stress of traveling long distances. Each person really stepped up and took responsibility for themselves and others. They also learned the importance of being assertive in a group setting while maintaining sensitivity to the different dynamics of each group member."

Kelly and Becker both agree that this opportunity will help them in the future.

"This opportunity will definitely make my application stand out to graduate schools," Kelly said. "Even the graduate students from Cal State, East Bay, commented that they had never had an experience such as this as undergraduates. Phil is even connecting me with resources and faculty at ASU. I feel I have opened up so many doors because of this."

Becker said actually seeing the topics they are studying in class have helped him gain a better understanding of them. "We looked at alluvial fans, sedimentary deposits rivers make from flowing over land, which are all over the United States, but in Death Valley we could see them so much better," Becker said. "There was little to no vegetation in the landscape and absolutely no buildings to obstruct our view. I have never been able to fully imagine what they looked like before I saw them on this trip. No matter what field you're studying, going out and experiencing it firsthand makes it all so much clearer. I couldn't be happier that I went on this trip."

For more information about the project or for additional photographs from the trip, visit the class blog at and contact Dr. Harry Jol at or 715-836-3472, or Martin Goettl at or 715-836-4709.



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