Field experience 'rocks' for freshmen in geology seminar

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- In some ways, Robert Phinney and Jason Morgan's freshman seminar in geology did not start until the second day of the October break week.

Sure, the two senior professors had already worked their students through six weeks of introductory geology. And they had, the day before, flown the class to California to start a week of fieldwork in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


Students in the freshman seminar "Active Geological Processes" spent fall break in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Here, Lisa Bennett, Susan Emmett and John Vermylen sit atop a geological formation in the San Joaquin Canyon trying to deduce the reason for the hexagonal cracks in the rock.


But it wasn't until the second day of the trip, when the dog-tired class had spent the afternoon tromping around three giant craters, that the magic moment occurred. The assignment was to look at the exposed layers of rock and the shape of the land and figure out what happened 600 years ago to form those craters.

"There's a detective story in looking at those layers and deciding which one came first," said Phinney. "And it's not particularly easy." As the day was winding down and class members were preparing to return for supper, one student stood up. "He said, 'I think I understand how it works,'" recalled Phinney. "And he presented an idea and gave some evidence, then another idea and more evidence." Then other students chimed in with counterpoints, and they adjusted the theory and kept going.

"They had what would be a seminar that you would be proud to have with your first-year graduate students," said Phinney, a professor of geosciences. "It was science."

It was a proud moment for the students as well, recalled class member Laura Smith. The first weeks of class had been a bit of a blur of geology terms. "As soon as we got out there, everything started making sense," Smith said.

Connoisseurship of landscapes

Phinney and professor of geosciences emeritus Ken Deffeyes began teaching this seminar, called "Active Geological Processes," 12 years ago. It predates the University's freshman seminar program, but its goal is the same: expose students who have no specialized training to advanced and exciting aspects of a topic under the direction of the top people in the field.

Phinney, an expert in seismology, and Morgan, one of the founders of the theory of plate tectonics, see the class as an opportunity to shed the constraints of textbook-based learning, which tends toward the encyclopedic transfer of knowledge.



Freshman Carrie Strickland works on her field notebook, recording features of a volcanic crater in the Mono Basin. She later received one of the class awards for "best notebook."


Science instruction is too often approached in the way kindergartners are taught the alphabet as a prerequisite for reading, said Morgan, the Knox Taylor Professor of Geography. "What they (high school students) had in science is this ABC stuff. What we're doing is about using your eyes, observing the world, making notes and trying to pull it all together. That's what science is. It's not knowing that the symbol H is hydrogen."

A key element in the seminar's alternative approach is a requirement that each student keep a field notebook. The students sketch the geological formations and rocks they see with an eye toward explaining the geologically relevant features.

"In sketching you have to reach out to what you are seeing, you have to understand what you are seeing and then capture it on paper," said Phinney. "It's like working in an art museum, but it's a different kind of object for which you're trying to gain a connoisseurship. That's what this course is about developing a connoisseurship of landscapes, of geological formations."

After returning from the trip, students turn in their field notebooks and set to work on a paper, which is intended to more fully develop an idea from the trip, but can be broadly interpreted. The students go through several rounds of submitting paper topics and drafts, Phinney said, noting that for many the paper is their first attempt to research and write in a subject outside the humanities and social sciences.

An introduction to Princeton

For Ale Hakala, a junior who took the seminar two years ago, the course played a major role in her decision to be a geology major. As someone who did not consider herself to be scientifically oriented, she had planned to major in politics, history or anthropology. "I signed up because I wanted to go hiking in California," she said.

Hakala is now pursuing an earth policy focus, taking five classes in geology and three in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She said the ideas from the seminar have stayed with her. "Even though I can't remember many specifics, it really gave me a sense of how everything works," she said.

Smith, who is now writing her paper for the class, said she is considering a major that combines chemistry and geology and allows her to pursue more fieldwork. She struggled at first to ask questions and draw conclusions, but had a breakthrough on the third day after sitting in one spot for an hour looking at a glacier-carved hillside. "I just started working on all these questions: Why did the glacier stop? Maybe it came this way. Why is this rock here and not over there?" she recalled. Now she said she is hooked.

"I could have spent a lot more time with my field notebook," she said.

The seminar did not convince Eva Steinle-Darling to major in geology, but it did make a powerful impression. Now a junior majoring in chemical engineering, she was taking three other courses as a freshman that were conventional "hard and scientific" classes. "(The seminar) was a really fun course, and it was the first that didn't really emphasize studying the textbook subject matter," she said.

"I was very impressed that only halfway into the course did I discover I was learning plate tectonics from the person (Morgan) who discovered it," Steinle-Darling said. "It was the first introduction to what it really means to be at Princeton and what amazing people are here students and professors alike."

Food and friends

In addition to the loftier goals of the class, the seminar helps Phinney and Morgan correct what they find to be a mistaken impression of geosciences among many students. "Earth sciences is commonly viewed in high school as the 'easy' science, one which doesn't provide much help in college admissions or career planning," said Phinney. Students often are surprised to find that, more than just identifying rocks, the field is a meeting place of physics, chemistry, biology, ecology and public policy.

Phinney believes that the University would benefit from more hands-on, non-textbook-based classes like the freshman seminars. But the approach presents challenges, he said. The geology field trip, for example, requires substantial financial backing, which the instructors piece together from departmental and University-wide funds.

Also, the fieldwork requires a ratio of students to faculty even smaller than that of most freshman seminars. "Students get spread around the countryside," said Phinney. "We need to pay personal attention to how every student is doing, since they are being asked to experience a new way of being out in nature. We need to see who's not asking questions and who is being too quiet."

The course always has guest instructors, often from other institutions. Laurel Goodell, geosciences lab manager, also has participated for the past five years. Phinney noted that Goodell provides hands-on experience in many aspects of studying rocks where he and Morgan lack detailed expertise. In recent years Hans-Peter Bunge, assistant professor of geosciences, also has gone on the trip. The visiting instructors bring a variety of perspectives and even disagree with each other from time to time, which is valuable for students to see, Phinney said.

Deffeyes, although officially retired, continues to go along as "cook." The class Web site students/courses/FRS145/Homepage.html features a section of his campsite recipes, including such menu items as grilled spaghetti sauce, and offers some insight into the fun of bringing together an interesting mix of people outside the normal academic setting.

Hakala echoed other former students in noting that many from the class have remained close friends. "It was almost like a second Outdoor Action, but with an academic focus," she said.



December 10, 2001
Vol. 91, No. 12
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