COVID-19 doesn’t curb field camp 'rite of passage' for geosciences students

David Kubarek
August 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a field exercise, geosciences student Katie Reilly moved from point to point, analyzing surface geological formations, hoping to gain insight into the environmental conditions that formed portions of the Rocky Mountains.

For experienced undergraduate students in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, this capstone field camp is a rite of passage. Each year, dozens of students usually spend six weeks exploring the topography and geologic features of the Western United States, analyzing firsthand the expression of forces that they’ve spent years learning.

What was different for Reilly? She never left her home.

She is one of a handful of students to fulfill the field camp requirement amid the global COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the swift and skillful work of faculty members in the Department of Geosciences. There, experts spent weeks leading up to the course creating a virtual experience using Google Earth, drone footage, images and datasets to create a learning experience much like the traditional one.

Going virtual

Faculty members knew in March that the pandemic might threaten a course that’s traditionally experienced by students piling into vans, camping out — often off the grid — for weeks. So they got to work inventorying available material.

One perk is that more than 100 others were hoping also to create their camps in virtual form. They became a resource. But Penn State’s field camp, which is different than most because it’s a capstone course — an end cap to education rather than an introduction into fieldwork — meant faculty members would have to create much of the experience on their own.

It helped that Roman DiBiase, Rudy L. Slingerland Early Career Professor of geosciences, had amassed high-resolution imagery of places such as the Teton Range and Bighorn Basin, and Julia Carr, a geosciences graduate student who assisted the course, flew drones during previous field camps. So students could zoom in, using digital tools, close enough to measure grain sizes in the formations, or zoom out far enough to get a birds-eye view. Assistant Research Professor Erin DiMaggio, Professor Donald Fisher and Assistant Professor Andrew Smye joined in constructing the bulk of the Western U.S. course while Assistant Research Professor Dave Yoxtheimer designed a portion of the course focused on Pennsylvania geology related to the natural gas industry.

“We looked at our objectives for field camp and how we could best fulfill them,” Fisher said. "One great thing about field camp is getting students out there, thinking on their own, and collecting all their data in the field and having to interpret it. We knew that virtually we could expose them to datasets in different field areas where they could collect their own data using GIS and other tools.”

Course creators were quick to point out that the virtual experience won’t replace traditional field camp, but it’s a great tool to have for unique situations, and also increases the accessibility of the experience of field camp.

The concept of students applying what they know to understanding and solving geological problems was still a key component of the course.

“One of the main goals is for students to synthesize what they have learned in their geosciences courses,” DiMaggio said. “They’re using these skill sets to solve real-world problems — pulling from their geoscience knowledge to interpret earth processes.”

Student experience

Reilly, a senior, said she was looking forward to field camp, so, naturally, the idea of it being canceled or offered virtually weighed on her. She praised faculty members for their efforts.

“Although online, the faculty and teaching assistants did a great job integrating ‘virtual’ field images into Google Earth tours, so it felt as close to physically being there as possible,” Reilly said. “I was surprised that the information provided about our areas of study was so accessible.”

Wildhorse River

Wildhorse River is one of the locations students frequent during geosciences field camp. Various technologies were used to bring students closer to geologically important sites in the Western United States.

IMAGE: Julia Carr

The lack of travel time and additional access to course instructors, she said, gave her more experience in using the digital tools of a geoscientist, with software such as ESRI ArcGIS and Adobe Illustrator.

Because field camp is so immersive, faculty members kept to that schedule. Students began around 9 a.m. with course instruction followed by independent exercise and a review session before being given assignments to carry through the evening. Faculty and teaching assistants also staffed a Zoom room throughout that time, so students had constant access. The 2-to-1 student to expert ratio meant students had even more access versus the traditional offering.

Varsha Swami, a senior, also was concerned the virtual experience wouldn’t live up to what other students had previously experienced, but she soon found that the carefully picked resources guided her virtual experience.

“The Google Earth tours have to be my favorite,” Swami said. “These tours were designed in a way where we were given pictures of a location with questions to guide our thinking. This was very useful because we could take a look at the pictures ourselves, make observations and then interpret from there.”

Yoxtheimer, who led students for three weeks on a virtual crash course of Appalachian geology, said students may have missed out on some unique field camp experiences but gained powerful tools used by modern-day geoscientists. His portion of the course taught students how to study the geology of the region and write reports on the viability of energy extraction.

“I entered when the field was largely an analog world,” Yoxtheimer said. “But nowadays there’s so much information at your fingertips that you can really go out and do a desktop analysis or do a lot of upfront work before you even go out into the field. These students gained more cutting-edge skills than they might have otherwise if they had just been sweating it out along an outcrop. They surely had a different experience, but I don’t think it was a lesser experience in the end.”

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Last Updated August 21, 2020