Painted Hills Crossing the Wildhorse River, Pioneer Mountains, Idaho

Geologic Field Methods



Geologic field methods is an essential and integral component of an undergraduate degree in Geological Sciences. The course serves four critical roles beyond learning field techniques.

  • First, it is a review of most of the geology undergraduate curriculum.
  • Second, it translates material learned in a classroom or lab to its occurrence in a natural setting. Geologic Field Methods provides the ideal hands-on learning experience because it exposes students to the true complexity of nature.
  • Third, geologic field methods represents a different type of learning compared to traditional lecture/lab format. Field geologists develop critical thinking skills based on independent discovery. Field geology presents unique challenges because it combines
    1. applying knowledge of core subject areas,
    2. developing skills on the proper acquisition of data,
    3. learning the limitations in quantity and quality of data,
    4. developing sound interpretations based on limited data and time for analysis, and
    5. applying deductive reasoning using the scientific method. The geologic field methods experience is as close to the real geologic world without actually holding a job.
  • Fourth, geologic field methods emphasizes professional behaviour including teamwork and collaboration in the field and in the camp, completing assignments on time, and participating in discussions.

Our field course emphasizes creative thinking and problem solving skills. Dr. Neal Lane, who served as chief science advisor to President Clinton, as director of the National Science Foundation, and as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, pointed out the importance to the work force of students who develop these skills. He stated "In an economy increasingly based on innovation, companies need employees with a different set of skills from those of the past. Workers today need to anticipate and think their way through problems, propose bold solutions, communicate effectively, work collaboratively, and manage resources such as time and materials. These are exactly the skills developed through inquiry based approaches to education." Geologic Field Methods is an inquiry based course.

Naturally, our field course emphasizes learning how to create, read, and interpret geologic maps. Geologic maps form the foundation of geology. They show the type, age, and distribution of rocks within an area, the type of contacts between the rocks, the type and orientation of structures, and the three-dimensional geometry of geology. Geologic maps are used for a variety of purposes ranging from socioeconomic benefits such as exploration and development of resources (e.g groundwater, minerals, petroleum, etc.), assessing coastal erosion, flood hazards, and soil erosion, cleaning environmental sites, engineering buildings, making zoning decisions in city planning, siting waste disposal facilities, and estimating property values to purely academic research. In one study, the benefits of geologic mapping exceeded the cost of producing the geologic maps by factor of 50 to 1. Thus, developing the skills and experience needed to read and interpret a geologic map are fundamental to a geologic education, have important and significant socioeconomic benefits, and are important to academic research.

During the first three weeks of the course, our field mapping class is taught in collaboration with the Geology & Geophysics program, Oregon State University in Mitchell, OR. During the last two weeks of the course, our field mapping class is taught in Big Lost River Valley, ID out of Idaho State University's Lost River Field Station. Students will learn to map geology on topographic maps and aerial photographs; describe sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks; measure sedimentary sections; take structural measurements; construct cross-sections; integrate diverse data sets into a coherent geologic history; write short reports; and compile a regional geologic map, cross-sections, and stratigraphic columns based on independent student group mapping project.

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