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Geology on the Rocks

This popular First Year Seminar (FYS) designed for brand new college students takes a decidedly hands-on approach. The course is centered around a seven-day expedition to the mountains of eastern California, where students conduct research projects they help design themselves. When not hiking and climbing to their field destinations, students are housed in high-altitude research stations near Bishop. To shake things up, as it were, the area is home to earthquake-producing faults, glacial formations and active volcanoes. Students (and parents) can take comfort that the last one erupted 250 years ago.

GEOL 72H students explore the south fork of Big Pine Creek
Photo by Zoe Wolszon, UNC-Chapel Hill

Before and After

The trip takes place over fall break, said professor Allen Glazner, who designed the seminar and takes turns teaching it with Drew Coleman. Typical field activities include recording and describing glacial features, measuring an active fault or mapping a particular geologic area. In the weeks before the trip, students learn basic geologic principles and develop their research topics. After the trip, they collate the data and lab test samples from the field.

Students in GEOL 72
Photo by Stephanie Tolar, UNC-Chapel Hill

Dress in Layers

“Bishop is at 4,000 feet, but we get as high as 10,000 feet on the hikes,” Glazner said. “You hear the coyotes howling, and you’ve got mountains on either side going up to 14,000 feet.” Temperatures during the trip range from 80 degrees to below freezing, depending on the time of day and the altitude, and the students occasionally encounter heavy weather. “We have been up in Yosemite a few times on the wrong side of a 10,000-foot pass when it started to snow,” Glazner said. “We had to kind of hurry across — otherwise it’s a 10-hour drive to get back.”

Rock Hounds and English Majors

About 20 students take the trip each year, along with the professor and one or two graduate students. Glazner and Coleman try to incorporate environmental and social issues as they relate to geology — such as the long-contentious issue of California water rights. (The Los Angeles Aqueduct gets about half its water from the region.) The course is also one of just a handful of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Collaborative FYS classes, which are designed to emphasize research and to get non-science students interested in science. Glazner said that while some of his students are future rock hounds, most are not, and he gets a surprising number of English majors. “I’m trying to convert them, of course.”

Glazner is the Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham Distinguished Professor, and Coleman is the Jaroslav Folda Distinguished Professor.

—  Story by Glenn McDonald