Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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A hot spring break

Geology students heading to Death Valley for research

Known for its extremes, Death Valley is a place where visitors can experience snow covered mountains and fields of wild flowers in record-setting summer heat, as well as stand at the lowest point in the Western hemisphere while looking at some of the highest mountains in the 48 contiguous states.

The drama and range of the area’s geology is a geologist’s dream.

For a week, it will be a reality for Wheaton College Professor Geoffrey Collins and a dozen students in his “Field Geology Seminar.” During spring break, from March 8 through March 15, the group will conduct geological research in Death Valley National Park, which is located in California and Nevada.

The trip offers students a broader research landscape beyond the New England region where they usually do fieldwork and puts textbook concepts right before their eyes. Collins’s seminar course builds upon the foundation of “Introductory Geology” and introduces students to more advanced material on geomorphology, sedimentology, igneous petrology, structural geology and tectonics.

“The challenge with studying geology in New England is that there are very interesting rocks and landscapes but you have to fight through the underbrush to find them and to see little tiny glimpses of what’s happening,” said Collins. “But, in the desert landscape out in Death Valley, there is almost no vegetation. The air is clear. You can see for 50 miles. The structure of the Earth is laid out before you in spectacular fashion. And you have rocks that are more than a billion years old next to rocks that are less than a thousand years old, all overlaid by textbook geologic processes that are active today.”

Collins, who created Wheaton’s first geology class in 2000 when he began teaching at the college, is excited that the program has grown enough to have plenty of well-trained geology students to merit this trip, which is partially funded with a NASA educational grant.

Students will stay in a field station on the edge of Death Valley National Park and venture into the park each day as teams of students tackle each of their research questions, from morning until sundown. At the end of April, they all will write final reports on their projects.

They spent a month planning and preparing proposals, outlining the research questions they will explore in Death Valley. Some will study a large volcanic crater to learn more about the eruptions that occurred there; others are interested in finding out about the processes that cause the erosion of slot canyons found along mountain ranges.

Elizabeth Meyer ’14 plans to look at exposed rock formations from the Cambrian period, which began about 540 million years ago. “Cambrian rocks are a source of some of the earliest, well-preserved fossils of marine organisms with complex bodies. We're hoping to see if we can find and photograph any fossils that I can look up and identify, as part of a written follow-up to our fieldwork,” she said.

“I'm a biology major, but I took geology during my sophomore year as a class related to my major, and I absolutely loved it. I've had a lot of field trips for my science classes, but I've never been to a desert ecosystem before. This is a great opportunity to see a new place, and review what I learned about geology a few years later as a senior. This project also is my way of connecting geology with my fascination for evolution.”

In addition to being equipped with standard outdoor tools, the group will also have the geologist’s new best friend—the iPad, which they will use to take notes and to measure slopes, angles, compass directions and GPS positions.

They will also have walkie-talkies and old-fashioned paper maps, which is a good thing, considering that Death Valley was given its foreboding name by a group of pioneers who got lost there in the winter of 1849–1850. Like the days of those pioneers, there’s still no cell phone or internet service.