Integrated Field Project in Structural Geology and Sedimentology/Stratigraphy

Lawrence Malinconico and David Sunderlin
Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, Lafayette College
Author Profile


By combining the curricular and learning objectives across traditionally separate undergraduate courses in Sedimentology/Stratigraphy and Structural Geology, Lafayette College has developed an innovative year-long course focusing on basin and structural analysis. An extended structural and stratigraphic field-mapping project in the structurally complex Bighorn Basin provides on-the-ground training for our students. This is then coupled with numerous laboratory projects focusing on interpreting the data collected in the field.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Both Sedimentology/Stratigraphy and Structure & Tectonics of the Earth are required for undergraduate BS geology majors at Lafayette College. While the two courses have kept individual designations, Sed/Strat is a prerequisite for the Structure course. More importantly, the topics traditionally covered in each course are being blended into a full-year syllabus.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have basic field geology observation skills and a working knowledge of topographic maps, generally acquired in introductory geology field labs. Additionally, they should have familiarity with the common minerals found in sedimentary rocks; usually as a result of having completed a course in mineralogy.

How the activity is situated in the course

The extended basin and structural analysis exercise in the Bighorn Basin occurs mid-way through the second semester (Structural analysis) over the College's fall break. This is effectively three-quarters of the way through the two-semester sequence and is a capstone experience that allows the students to synthesize a set of field data using the skills acquired in the previous 22 weeks of study. Prior to the mapping project, field exercises on local strata provide the basic field training on how to make measurements and interpretations from outcrop. The last part of the second semester is spent analyzing, interpreting and presenting (oral and written) the sedimentologic and structural data acquired in the Bighorn Basin.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

At the most basic level, the goal of the two-course sequence is to allow a student to develop the skills necessary to interpret the geologic history of a region from field observations and mapping.
More specific skills within this broad goal include:
  • measuring stratigraphic sections and
  • making paleoenvironmental interpretation
  • understanding basin genesis and deformation
  • measuring structural elements in the field
  • creating geologic maps from field measurements
  • understanding how to interpret a geologic map

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Spatial analysis of complex structures
  • Facies associations and paleoenvironmental hypotheses
  • Synthesis of structural and stratigraphic principles in basin analysis
  • Interpretation of the geologic history of any area.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Process writing
  • Oral presentation
  • Regional synthesis
  • Interfacing traditional mapping with digital mapping methodologies; Google Earth or GIS for example

Description of the activity/assignment

The field project described in the Big Horn Basin is a capstone experience for our innovative full-year course sequence that combines two geologic disciplines traditionally taught separately (in "silos") – sedimentology/stratigraphy and structural geology. We feel that a holistic approach that combines an understanding of the processes involved in both disciplines allows students to more easily develop the geologic history of an area from collected field data. The result is a two-semester course sequence that integrates the concepts of the two disciplines through a full year of study.

While we have more than ten different field projects during the year, these are simply "snapshots" that allow the student to only see a piece of the geologic puzzle. These exercises do develop skills that the student will use in the capstone experience – the geologic synthesis of a specific region – currently the Sheep Mountain region of the Big Horn Basin. The field-mapping project in the Big Horn Basin is followed by five weeks of sequenced work that allows each student to synthesize a complete geologic (sedimetologic and structural) history of the region. This includes the construction of a geologic map and cross-sections, understanding the depositional history (including environments of deposition), the syn- or post-depositional deformation of the region and an attempt to put the local geologic history into the context of regional deformation and tectonics. We believe that by integrating the disciplines into the two-semester sequence capped with the field mapping and synthesis better prepares students to "think like a geologist".

Determining whether students have met the goals

Obviously each part of the course is evaluated to see how well it helps to achieve the learning objectives that we have described above. More specifically the capstone field project is evaluated on several different levels:
  1. how capable were the students in the field, i.e. the precision of their stratigraphic and structural field data,
  2. how well did the students interpret these data; maps, cross-section, strat sections etc.
  3. the professional style with which they complete a report of the geologic history,
  4. how well were they able to synthesize the data through local and regional interpretations

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials