Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Convergence of Wonders: Journeys in the Pacific Northwest

Geology field trips through the auspices of community colleges occupy an odd universe somewhere between a ranger-led experience at a national park and the academic training of upper-division geology departments. On the one hand, the field is where the geology major is tested against the elements, to learn the use of GPS, mapping, field identification of rocks and sediments, and other skills they will need in their eventual careers. Students will spend many days on one site, getting to know it in great detail. On the other hand, tourists arrive on their own at a national park, expecting a good time, perhaps knowing very little about geology, biology, and environmental science, and rangers try to facilitate a bit of learning. They are trained, however, to stop trying to teach at the first sign of boredom or disinterest. Tourists get their immediate questions answered, but there is little opportunity to learn much of anything in depth. I don't think I've ever seen a tourist taking notes in the presences of an interpretive ranger (Rangers? Tell me if your experience is different; I haven't had the privilege of trying your job yet!).

What I have on a community college field trip is an eclectic collection of people, some of whom have had a geology class or two, and others who have had no background at all. They are a captive audience, unlike those of a park ranger. They have to demonstrate new knowledge by the end of the course. They are attending for personal enrichment, and sometimes because they need academic units (believe me, this is a tough way to get those units, folks). I often find teachers in the mix, working on their knowledge base and building their photograph and specimen collections for use in the classroom. On our recent journey, we were mixing things up by taking two classes in the field together, geology students and anthropology/archaeology students. It made for an interesting synergy.

When designing a course set in the field, I am torn between the desire to take things slow and learn a place in depth, or to go whole hog with the time I have and hope to show our students as many sights and wonders as possible. There are arguments for both approaches...I tend to explore our local parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley) more completely. We can revisit on a different weekend and explore the less-known corners of these parks. On a longer, more ambitious trip, I push hard to see as much as possible. My thinking, quite literally, is that this may be the one chance that these students will ever have to see these remote places, like Glacier National Park, or Nine-Mile Canyon in Utah (see near-future blog entries). The drives are long and exhausting, and it is hard for the students to take it all in at first. This is where the value of notes and picture-taking becomes supreme. They may not get the big picture right away, but using their notes and pictures to fill in the worksheets we provide them, the students start to construct a model in their heads of the geological framework of a particular region. Even though our visits to specific sites may be fairly brief, the students are still able to say "I was there, I saw that place, and I can tell you something interesting about it".

Field trips are messy, exhausting, frustrating, and chaotic (but believe me, a good crew of volunteers is a godsend that keeps problems to a minimum!). There are biting bugs, marauding bears, freezing nights, hot days, sunburn, intense wind and dust, road construction delays, and personality conflicts. There are idiots out there who have no business driving trucks, motorcycles and giant RVs. There are grumpy community college professors to contend with (oh, my poor students!). Experiences in the field aren't for everyone.

But this blog is! For the next few posts, I would like to share our recent journey across the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains, and you don't have to put up with the bugs and the dirt! The geology and natural history, like our class, will be survey-style, not in-depth. We saw many incredible stories written in the stone and sediment, and I am anxious to share them with you, the reader, as I shared them with my students. I have been struggling to come up with a name for the series, because "Fire and Ice", as appropriate as it is, has been used many times. After some discussion with Mrs. Geotripper, I realized that apart from the Pleistocene glaciations, almost all the landscape we saw formed under the influence of the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California (and off the rest of California as recently as 29 million years ago). Subduction zones are one form of convergent boundaries, and thus the name of our exploration: A Convergence of Wonders: Journeys in the Pacific Northwest.

PS: By the way, Modesto Junior College does offer some in-depth field studies for geology/earth science majors. Later this month, some of our students will be learning some basic mapping and GPS skills at our field station near Sonora Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Contact me if you are interested.