A field trip to experience the past helps geosciences majors explore their futures.
Bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops nestled in gray and tan limestone stretching as far as the eye can see and petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years. Immense caves full of stalagmites, stalactites and spindly columns where they've grown together over millennia. Mesas with rock layers ranging from chalky white to rust to mauve to lavender, overlooking the fossilized, mineral encrusted remains of 225-million-year-old tree stumps. Rainbow-striped canyon walls through which the Colorado River flows harmoniously, never hinting at its role in carving them.
“The trip is a component of a grant we received from the Pevehouse Foundation to enhance our field-teaching experience in the department,” said trip leader Dustin Sweet, an associate professor of sedimentology and stratigraphy. “This trip was designed especially for early majors, or those students who have declared a geoscience major but are only in their first year of our department curriculum.”
During their visits to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Valley of Fire State Park, Petrified Forest National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, the students were exposed to a wide variety of geologic concepts they have learned during their first year, such as volcanic flows and how deposited sediments form rock layers.
Fiorella Llerena, a first-year environmental geosciences major from Houston, said one of the trip's most impactful moments for her happened on the very first day. While examining rocks in the soil at Carlsbad Caverns, she noticed that they were all calcium-based. And when she asked Sweet why, his answer stunned her.
“He said we could tell by the formation of the rocks and the layering of the soil that this used to be the ocean,” she recalled. “That kind of blew my mind because we were standing in a place that used to be inhabited and had a marine ecosystem, and now we can just walk through it and study the fossils we find there. It blew my mind that it is accessible to us now, that we can see the history in it just by looking at the rocks there. It was like holding history in my hand, basically.”
Riley Young, a first-year geology major from Monahans, was fascinated by the Petrified Forest. There, the group was able to see the fossils of trees that fell during the late Triassic period, when many of the first dinosaurs were just evolving. Back then, what's now northeastern Arizona was near the equator on the southwestern edge of the supercontinent Pangaea. It was humid and subtropical with mountains to the south and southeast, and a sea to the west.
“The Petrified Forest in Arizona was definitely the most interesting because of the fact that the entire landscape has changed completely,” Young said. “It's changed so much over the past 200 to 300 million years, and yet, you still have wood from that time preserved – and nothing else is.”
For Logan Fink, a sophomore geosciences major from Lubbock, the Grand Canyon stole the show.
“The most interesting thing I've seen on this trip was when we were hiking across the rim, seeing all the layers in the rocks and the little bits of the river,” he said. “It's just really pretty, and it was interesting to talk about how the river formed the canyon as we see it today.”
The students agreed that they were able to apply many of their in-class lessons while on the trip.
“We actually had just learned in one of my classes about formations of rocks and metamorphic rocks and plate tectonics, all these things, and so when we went to the Grand Canyon, I could see the different formations of the Earth; I could touch it,” Llerena said. “It was like class brought to life. I think you can learn a lot from looking at pictures and identifying them, but being able to see it and touch it and actually be a part of it really impacted me.”
That was particularly revelatory for these students because it was their first real hands-on experience.
“Since we're just beginning in our majors, we hadn't really had a chance to apply any of the things we've learned yet,” Fink said, “and so, this trip gave us an early experience at that.”
“It's one thing to sit in a class and see something in a picture,” Young agreed, “but once you go and actually get your hands on it and are able to do it in person, it's a whole different perspective.”
For Young, the trip solidified in his mind his decision to major in geology. But that wasn't necessarily the case for all participants. Fink, for instance, is still trying to determine which area of geosciences he'd like to specialize in.
“I'm using this trip to dip my toes, I guess, into different aspects,” he said. “Because it's so early, I haven't really gotten a chance to see everything else, so I'm still kind of in that process of trying to figure it out. But I did get to see some really cool aspects of certain fields of geology, and I'll remember that when I'm trying to decide. Maybe I'll come back to it.”
Even for those who already had a pretty firm direction in mind, the trip opened their eyes to new possibilities.
“With a bachelor's degree in geology, I could become a park ranger at a national forest, a national park or state park,” Young said. “At first my plan was to go into oil and gas, but after getting to speak to some rangers, now I'm kind of thinking of being a park ranger. They live there, so they never have a boring day. They're always doing something new and they're always teaching people. They were going over some of the concepts we learned in class, which I thought was cool, and I'd like to be able to do that.”
Some even learned new things about themselves.
“I have always had a love for the environment and the Earth, but I think this trip has really opened my eyes to how interested I am in geology itself,” Llerena said. “I might be considering a minor more geology-based and then my major being environmental geosciences. It's honestly just so fascinating to be able to see how the Earth works.”