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“Ah, the Glories of Geology Field Camp”

From the 2010 Geosciences Department Newsletter
by Professors Don Fisher and Rudy Slingerland

Dr. Rudy SlingerlandIt’s about 10 am on a sunny day in June of this year, and we’re sitting on a ridge of the Parkman Ss in Elk Basin, Wyoming.  From up here the double-plunge of the Elk Basin anticline is a thing of beauty, made all the moreDr. Don Fisher sublime (for us at least) by the nodding heads of numerous oil wells. The work of uncountable rainstorms has etched out hogbacks of variably resistant strata, so that parasequences and topography have become one and the same. But what has our attention at the moment is a mapping team of two Penn State Geosciences undergrads. They are standing next to a 5 m high wall of Virgelle Ss covered by slickenlines. Through our binoculars we see them gesticulate, hands in the plane-of-bedding, hands in the plane-of-the-fault, fingers pointing this way and that.  It’s the ritualized hand-dance of the field geologist drawing meaning from rocks and dirt. Finally they commit some lines to their field maps, agree on their next move, and scramble up the wash and out of sight.

The students are enrolled in a course called Field Geology I, an Introduction to Field Methods, or as readers of this newsletter undoubtedly called it, “Field Camp”. Since 2005 and the introduction of a Geobiology major, the Penn State Field Camp has been divided into two parts, Geosc 472A, an introduction to geologic field methods; and Geosc 472B, advanced field methods, the 3-D characterization of earth structure, and the reconstruction of geologic histories. Each is three weeks long for a total of six credits towards the degree.  For the traditional Geosciences BS degree, both courses are required, because they are considered a junior-level capstone experience before the students specialize their senior year.  Only Geosc 472A is required for the Geobiology degree, and neither is required for the Geosciences BA degree.

Field Camp circa 1925Figure 1. Penn State Geology Field Camp circa 1925, probably in Bedford County, PA

Field Camp at Penn State has a long and storied history. For details, see the Field Camp website maintained by Professor Emeritus Dave Eggler at: The first required summer field geology course lasting more than one week was listed in the College General Catalog in 1919-1920 (Fig. 1). By 1932-1933 a course called Summer Field Geology was taught near Bedford, PA, and lasted eight weeks. In 1942, during World War II, the camp moved to University-owned property about 15 miles from University Park (Stone Valley). As reported by Professor Fred Swain, one of the instructors of that era, students mapped in teams of four using Brunton compasses and aerial photos and created their own topographic maps by surveying with a plane table and alidade. Like today, the mapping involved soil interpretation, topographic expression, measuring dips and strikes, and structural cross-section sketches, with graduate student assistants and faculty constituting the teaching staff. The momentous decision to move our Field Camp from Pennsylvania to the intermontane west came in 1961.  Professor Rob Scholten was mapping near Lima, Montana, and the superb exposures made it a good place to teach field skills (and, it turns out, teach students how to compete successfully in the Wild Cow Milking Contest at the Lima Fair).  By 1965 our camp was staying at YBRA (Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association) and the Elk Basin mapping project was initiated (by Professor Russ Dutcher). In the intervening 45 years, Penn State students have continued to enjoy campfires along the Beartooth Front and make sense of the faults and slickenlines in Elk Basin (Fig. 2). 

But the tools of the trade have evolved. Students still use Bruntons, rock hammers, 10x hand lenses, and good old 10% HCL.  But instead of making topographic maps with a plane table and alidade they are provided with laptop computers, arcMAP software, and a geographic information system (GIS) consisting of digital elevation models, high-resolution orthorectified aerial photos, and georeferenced 1:24,000 USGS quadrangle maps. Each mapping team receives a hand-held GPS, from which waypoints and tracklines can be downloaded directly to their GIS.  In addition, their computers come equipped with graphics and computing software and a word processor for writing reports.  Although students still map in the field on topographic and aerial photo basemaps, they prepare their final maps using the GIS software and print them in color on 11x17 inch paper using portable printers carried along with the camp.

Currently, the Penn State Field Camp prides itself on offering a diverse set of geological exercises at field locations selected to provide exercise-appropriate outcrops. Students taking the complete camp start their field training by learningsequence stratigraphy in the Book Cliffs of east-central Utah. The strata are superbly exposed in the cliffs and many of the Exxon-Mobil sequence stratigraphic principles were first tested there. Surficial or Quaternary mapping is taught near Tooele, UT, and in south Salt Lake City at the mouth of Bells Canyon where glacial lake and alpine glacial deposits are well exposed. Bedrock mapping of sedimentary, volcanic, and plutonic rocks is taught in Elk Basin, WY; Wildhorse, ID; and Alta UT. The course is rounded out by two neotectonic studies that use fault scarps to estimate the timing of paleoearthquakes and an exercise on contact metamorphism and heat flow. We also lead side field trips through Yellowstone National Park, Chief Joseph Scenic highway/Beartooth Pass, and Craters of the Moon National Monument. As our exercises have incorporated new methods for documenting and analyzing field data, one thing has remained the same for the last 50 years: field camp continues to provide a capstone experience that incorporates the principles of our core Geosciences curriculum in the spectacular mountainous settings of the Western US.