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Geology students take capstone projects into the field

July 3, 2013
 Group-Photo-web

Front Row Left to Right: Frank Heaton, Ellen Buelow, Tim Moliter, Amy Razmuzzen, Roger Schulz, Katy Grant
Back Row Left to Right: April Leistikow, Aleisha Johnson, Travis Bender, Brian Denning, Matt Edgar, Marissa Fuglestad, Ethan Turriff, Will Gaumitz, Lindsey Lepak, Eric Houle, Todd Lindblad, Xai Her, Kelly Schwierske, Joel Smith, Dr. Geoffrey Pignotta, assistant professor in geology, Samantha Taylor.

EAU CLAIRE — Twenty geology students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire recently journeyed west to complete their final projects during a three-week geology field camp experience held near Whitehall, Mont.

The Montana field camp trip, led by Drs. J. Brian Mahoney and Geoff Pignotta of the geology department at UW-Eau Claire, is the second of a two-part field geology sequence, which consists of two three-week field courses that integrate with and complement on-campus upper division lecture and laboratory course work.

 Ellen-Buelow-and-Lindsey-Lepak-webjpg
Ellen Buelow (left) and Lindsey Lepak (right) work on identifying rock formations and the history of geologic events.

"Field experiences in the geology department provide students with actualistic experience in scientific methodology and problem-solving in the earth sciences," Mahoney said. "These field experiences integrate geologic field methods, data acquisition and analysis,and computer mapping skills as an introduction into modern geoscience investigative techniques."

"Field Geology I" is held annually at a field station in New Mexico over the Winterim session during the junior or senior year and serves as an introduction to data collection and interpretation in the field.

"The first field camp builds on basic skills and understanding introduced in the first several courses in the geology curriculum, and challenges students to apply the concepts they have learned to real field problems in order to set the stage for more advanced course work," Mahoney said. "'Field Geology II' is held annually at the field station in Montana and is conducted as a true capstone experience, designed to reinforce and expand concepts and skills developed during the entire degree program."

Mahoney said these field experiences substantially improve student learning by supporting and extending traditional classroom instruction with intensive field experience that provides hands-on practice utilizing a variety of integrated scientific techniques and concepts.

"The field-intensive, project-based nature of our program is becoming well-known within the geoscience profession, as evidenced by an increased number of off-campus applicants," Mahoney said. "Our students are in high demand for their field skills, conceptual understanding of geologic problems and high level of motivation and interest."

Senior geology major, Samantha Taylor from Roscoe, Ill., served as the teaching assistant on the field camp trip to Montana and said she first became interested in geology during a family vacation to Ape Caves, an extinct lava tube beneath Mount St. Helens, located in Washington.

"During my hike through the cave, I was fascinated with the different layers of lava flows you could observe through the tubes," Taylor said. "My uncle mentioned that if I found this interesting, I should look into volcanology, a branch of geology. I later looked up more about geology and loved it. I am no longer interested in being avolcanologist, but it led me to UW-Eau Claire and a phenomenal geology program."

Taylor said her main areas of interest in geology are in sedimentology and stratigraphy, as well as structural geology.

"There is something about mapping units that are tilted, folded and faulted that intrigues me," Taylor said. "It'slike trying to solve a puzzle about the Earth's past."

Field camp forces students to use all the knowledge they have gained throughout the duration of their geology course work, Taylor said.

"We have to use concepts that we learned in our first core class of mineralogy and petrology through content we learned in structural geology the week before we left. It forces us to recall all the vital information that our professors have been teaching us."

Taylor said the field camp experience affected her both academically and personally.

"Academically, the experience made me feel that I do have the potential to do this kind of work for an employer," Taylor said."I now have confidence that I can take on any challenge and know that itis also a learning experience.

"Personally, I feel that I have grown as an adult. Being put in a situation where you are expected to be responsible for the data  that you are presenting really helped me realize that I need to be accountable for the information I am showing. It showed me that I need to be professional in all aspects of my job. I have also made so many wonderful friends in this program and being able to spend this time with them and go through this experience with them is priceless."

Taylor will graduate in December and said she would like to gain some job experience doing geologic consulting before moving on to graduate school.

"I think this experience has really helped with my future plans," Taylor said. "I have made great relationships with my professors and feel they will be a vital part in my search for a job. I also feel this experience has helped me grow as a geologist. I am beginning to feel more confident with my geologic knowledge and I know that I have the ability to tackle whatever gets thrown my way."

Senior Ellen Buelow, a geology and Spanish major from Chilton was one of the students attending field camp this year. Her specific areas of interest in geology are field geology, sedimentology and geocognition, which focuses on science communication and understanding.

Buelow said her experience in field camp has strengthened her confidence in her abilities.

"Seeing the topics and ideas we have discussed in class in their natural setting really brings all of our knowledge together," Buelow said. "Having to take ownership of our own projects taught us a great deal about responsibility. We had to take initiative in the field and learn to work independently. That is a skill that will help us when we're actually in the field in our careers.

"I learned that studying and mapping rock formations accurately takes time," Buelow said. "It may take more than one try to get the best results from your data and to be able to identify all of the important little details. UW-Eau Claire does a great job of providing us with two different landscapes to refine our skills. Looking at structural formations in Montana was much more difficult than in New Mexico because of the increased vegetation, so it provided a great challenge for our final projects."

Buelow will also graduate in December and is considering applying to graduate school.

She has been conducting student-faculty collaborative research in the area of science literacy with Dr. Scott Clark in the geology department at UW-Eau Claire. Her research is examining how scientists contribute to the media's effort in educating and informing the public, focusing on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She is scheduled to present her research in the area of geoscience at the Geological Society of America national conference in October.

"I examined how science played a role in the media's language and how scientists work with journalists to communicate with the public," Buelow said. "It's important for any scientist to understand that it's not enough just to do research; they have to be able to communicate its significance to the public."

Mahoney commented on the impact the field camp experience has on the students and their progression through the course saying, "The most rewarding part of the experience for me is watching the normally gradual, but sometimes sudden, development of geologic and scientific expertise among the students. This course sequence is truly enlightening for the students and they clearly recognize how far they have come once the course is over. They frequently comment that they cannot believe how much they have learned."

For more information on the UW-Eau Claire geology field camps, contact Dr. J. Brian Mahoney in the geology department at mahonej@uwec.edu or 715-836-4952.

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