A Geoscience Journey West – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

A Geoscience Journey West

On an overcast morning in the Pacific Northwest, Associate Professors of Geoscience Neil Laird and Tara Curtin led a group of eleven eager students up the craggy side of Mount Rainier. With cloudy skies, rain showers, and steep paths, the climb wasn’t exactly what the students had in mind when they applied for the two-week geoscience program months earlier. 

That is, until the breathtaking moment when the clouds cleared, revealing a snow-covered mountaintop perched 14,411 feet in the sky.

“In that moment, I think that the only thing that really came to anyone’s mind was: ‘Wow, what an impressive view. ’” Laird recollects. “The full view of Mt. Rainier was more than most of us had expected.”

The annual Geoscience 299 trip invites students from all class years to apply for the two-week, intensive geoscience program. Held in a different location each year, past locations have included Utah, Colorado and Hawaii. This year’s program took students to Central Washington and Central and Coastal Oregon.

“We told them we were going to climb on volcanoes and explore the coast – and we got a lot of applications,” laughs Laird.

The trip offers a multi-faceted course, combining intense fieldwork with on-site lessons and nightly readings. Students on all points of the geoscience spectrum join the program each year – from geology, to climate, weather, and hydrology.

While the Finger Lakes provide a rich fieldwork experience, locations like the Pacific Northwest offer new worlds for exploration – geographic areas that are outside of easy access for the Hobart or William Smith student while taking regular classes. Incorporating aspects of hydrology and water systems, ocean and coastal processes, weather and climate, as well as mountain range geology, the states of Oregon and Washington have an array of offerings that form an extensive curriculum.

“It’s an amazing way to show how hydrology, meteorology and geology interrelate,” says Curtin. “We cover a huge amount of course content, and students have the chance to experience so many aspects of what they’ve explore while taking classes on campus.” 

Caitlin Crossett ’15 joined the program for just that reason, hoping to build on what she had gained in the classroom as a geoscience and environmental studies double major. “I think it is important to get hands on experience in the field to better understand and apply the material we learn during the semester.”

Morning breakfasts became a debriefing period; Curtin and Laird laid out daily goals and provided any pertinent site information. However, most learning was done in the field by exploring rock formations, developing clouds, and contrasting landscapes. Each of these, painting a clearer picture than any from-the-book lesson plan or lecture discussion.

In the field, students – handily equipped with field notebooks and variety of instruments – had the opportunity to develop their own projects, collecting various measurements, taking photographs and observing atmospheric and geological conditions.

A GigaPan camera systems used by students daily allowed students and professors to bring back to campus intricate photos that will be used to create virtual “fieldtrips,” in the classroom. The GigaPan images captured detailed panoramas of locations like Crater Lake and Wizard Island.

The journey westward brought the group to the foot of Mount St. Helens, whose catastrophic eruption in 1980 devastated Skamania County, Washington. Students observed the surrounding landscape, now dotted with blown-down trees, sparse growth and volcanic rock.

“It emphasized the true power of a volcano,” remarks Laird. “It’s one thing to talk about an eruption’s reach in class, but these students saw and experienced the real impact a volcano can have on an environment and a community.”

On Rainier, another massive stratovolcano, two hiking trips along both high and low elevations afforded students a close study of glaciers and landscapes carved by glacial retreat, comparing modern and ancient glaciation while standing on snowpack 12-feet deep.

“The snow was so packed that we were actually able to use our bodies as slides,” recalls Laura Kenny ’14, a double major in geoscience and environmental studies. Kenny sees her time biking and hiking the famous volcano as the highlight of her experience. While on campus, volcanoes proved to be her most interesting coursework, so she welcomed the time spent with magma mere miles below her feet. 

“The projects changed drastically from one day to the next – none of the daily trips gave the same experience,” notes Laird. “A few of the students were joking that we’d only been on the trip for two days and they’d already checked off multiple things on their ‘Bucket Lists.’”

“Every day we did something new, and each new place we visited seemed to just add on to the experience,” says Crossett, echoing these sentiments. 

Throughout their adventures, each student took the time to take copious amounts of photographs, collecting images of deserts, mountains, volcanoes and coastal dunes, accompanied by observations, stray thoughts and details in an effort to create a capstone project – a photo journal used to the total geoscience experience.

“We spent from sun up to sun down hiking, traveling and completing fieldwork,” says Curtin, “so nighttime was our time to reflect, think and process that day. We hope that the photo journal will be a way to process the entire trip.”

Nighttime was also an occasion for camaraderie. Students and faculty lived together in rented houses, cooking and eating communal meals.

Other daytrips took the students and their professors winding along the Columbia River Gorge, across the sagebrush desert of Fort Rock State Park, and to Great Sand Dunes National Park, where students studied the migrations of dunes over time.

“It was such a contrast; it’s hard to actually relate this to students in a classroom without having actually experienced going from the coast covered in sand dunes through a mountainous rainforest to a desert with literal tumbleweed and no trees,” Curtin says.

It’s this experience that makes the trip such an integral part of the Colleges’ Geoscience program, says Laird. “They will carry that experience back to campus and into other courses. Their interactions with others will become larger than themselves, larger than a two-week trip.” 

As a professor, such passion is invigorating, breathing new life into curriculum and providing new means of interaction. “Every day we would see a student recognize something they didn’t necessarily see before,” explains Laird, who believes that many of his informal conversations with students were some of the most productive of the trip. “It’s such a complete joy to see students so completely focused on a course, to be so completely immersed in a place. It’s just a very different way of educating.”

In the end, Laird believes the power of the program is not necessarily the newfound Geoscience knowledge gained by the students, but what the knowledge comes to signify. “This program fosters excitement and curiosity about the earth,” posits Laird. “It teaches them how to really explore, learn as they go, – and delight in – the task at hand.”

“I think that the greatest piece of knowledge students walk away with is a sense of scale – all of these mountain ranges and deserts and coastlines are so big,” explains Curtin. “There’s really a valuable sense of smallness and humbleness that is gained.” 

To see more pictures from the two-week trip, check out a special This Week in Photos.

In the photo above, students rest on a rock formation created by a volcano while hiking through Fort Rock State Park in Central Oregon.