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Field labs on campus

Using the campus as a geoscience field lab site - Tips

Exploitable earth features that all campuses have:

  • Drainage and topography (even the flattest campus isn't perfectly flat)
  • Construction materials (rock on building faces and foundations, cement, adobe, asphalt)
  • Introduced materials (decorative stones in landscaped areas, statues or other monuments)
  • Alterations of the natural landscape
  • A view of the sky
  • Trees, plants, soils and microorganisms (natural or introduced)
  • Buildings of different ages

Teaching ideas and tips:

  • Natural vs. artificial Ask students to identify which parts of the campus landscape are natural and which parts have been modified. (In our experience, many students believe at first that all topography of the campus is greatly modified by humans. When they think geologically, they may come to recognize that the flat areas were originally terraces or floodplains and were already flat even before the grounds crew modified them for athletic fields). Students can record their observations on the plan map of the campus, available in the campus phone book, campus catalog or campus web site.
  • Pillsbury Hall the home of the University of Minnesota Geology and Geophysics Department
  • Where does water go? Ask students to trace the path that water would take on various parts of the campus from rainfall to the nearest lake or stream. As a supplement, you could ask students to recognize and map impervious surfaces and storm sewer networks and to analyze the effects these have on travel time for water. Again, the official campus map provides a useful base to record observations.
  • Weathering of building materials If the campus has buildings of different ages made from the same rock materials, ask students to observe any changes in the rocks that may be due to weathering. They may also be able (through the campus Facilities Office or equivalent) to find out any history of building exterior cleaning or renovation that might have affected the appearance of the rock. At the NIST stonewall site students can examine photos of common building materials for evidence of weathering.
  • Local or imported - stones Ask the students to determine which elements of building stone and decorative stone are local and which are imported - and if imported, from where? This exercise can lead into class work with geologic maps (of both local and distant areas), visual and microscopic description of the rock types, and economic analyses of raw material and transport costs. Here is a sample building stone lab example.
  • Local or exotic - plants Ask students which elements of the flora on campus are local and which are imported. Because different vegetation types have different effects on the soil, it may be possible to measure and compare the pH near a variety of deciduous and coniferous vegetation.
  • Reflection spectra Have students measure (with an inexpensive, hand-held radiometer) the reflection spectra of a variety of building materials, water bodies, and vegetation. Combined with temperature measurements, the reflection spectra data can be used in a study of albedo, heat absorption, and other atmospheric properties. This exercise can lead into class work with LANDSAT data and other remotely-sensed images, in which the field measurements ("ground truth") are compared with reflection spectra inferred from the images, which may span a range of seasons. In another extension, students could measure relectance spectra on the same buildings, water bodies and vegetation through a 24-hour period.
  • Landscape description Ask students to make a landscape and topographic description of the campus and the surrounding area without any reference to any man-made building or object. This exercise can lead into study of the local topographic quadrangle and digital orthophoto quad.
  • Weather Observation Students can make observations on wind direction, sky color, clouds and cloud cover; with minimal equipment students can make observations on micro temperature variations, humidity, and pressure. These activities can lead to discussions of meteorologic processes and climate.
  • Soils and Soil Temperature Shallow soil pits can be dug to expose the O and A horizons. With pointed probe thermometers students can take soil temperature readings, comparing a variety of locations.
  • Miniature Landforms Construction sites, curbs, and other places where sediment is exposed can develop rill, meandering and braided stream channels, alluvial fans, deltas and other landforms. These can be used as the basis for student observations and interpretations during class periods, labs, or as homework assignments. Consider having students take digital photographs of these landforms (with something for scale) and then annotating them.
Browse the field lab example collection for more ideas that can be adapted to on-campus sites.