I am leaving tomorrow on our yearly field studies journey to Death Valley National Park. It is one of the centerpieces of our earth science/geology program at our community college, and has been a yearly tradition since I started at the school in 1988. Hundreds of students have attended and participated; many have gone on to become geology majors and teachers, and many point to their experience in the field as the defining point in their lives.
Geology is the most field oriented of the natural sciences. One could be educated about the facts of the earth in a classroom, one can look at all the latest innovative media resources about the earth, and one can become proficient at the science. But classroom learning is nothing like standing on the outcrop, and seeing the rocks, seeing the actual structure of the earth. To be a student standing in front of an angular unconformity or a fault line in an outcrop, with all the vegetation and debris obscuring the actual relationships, is to be a James Hutton, a Charles Lyell, or a Nicolas Steno on the threshold of significant insight. It is the exhilaration of discovery, a deeper understanding growing out of putting the pieces together by yourself. It is the exploration of mysterious places, a voyage into terra incognita.
I don't think I can overstate the value of field experiences in an earth science/geology education. But I don't know what is coming next. The depression (and despite what the economists say, this is a depression) is ripping out the heart of education in our state and across the country. In the midst of economic chaos, the need for an educated population is the greatest it has ever been, and our resources are shrinking. Where do we go from here? For now, I'm going to do what I can, and what is possible. I'm going to take an enthusiastic group of students into the wilds, and we will experience together the thrill of discovery. And I'm going to hope for the future.