Outcrop Documentation Lab Exercise

Thomas V Evans, Western Washington University
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Stratigraphy students are tasked with documenting an outcrop (sketches, photographs, and rock descriptions) and providing a three panel display of the results. Students work on the lab in class and receive direct mentoring in rock and outcrop description, then for homework they craft digital professional quality reports to present the data to others. These reports are graded, then returned to everyone simultaneously so they can be placed side by side. Students directly observe how others interpreted the same deposits, which underscores the concepts of sound data documentation, and separating data from interpretations.

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This lab works well with undergraduate or graduate students with a senior level or higher understanding of stratigraphy. While this lab can be used for stratigraphy students, it can also be used for archaeology students equally as effectively.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need to understand sediment transport processes and how to recognize what deposits are left behind by each process. In addition, they must know how to perform rock descriptions, and it is useful for them to have drafted at least one stratigraphic section in advance.

How the activity is situated in the course

This lab activity is provided nearer the end of the class to cement student's understanding of rock descriptions, deposition processes, and hone their interpretive skills. As such it is not a culminating project, but a project used to pull all the pieces together in which they can receive constructive feedback before they perform a final project.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  1. The three panel diagram students learn how to make is a useful skill students should learn.
  2. Students learn the extreme differences in interpretations that can exist when multiple investigators study the same suite of rocks.
  3. Students practice rock descriptions and providing professional quality work in a low stakes environment.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students are confronted with real outcrops and all the vagaries they provide. Often their are multiple answers, challenges in synthesis, and differing opinions. It is a delightful exercise in real world science!

Other skills goals for this activity

It is useful if students know how to work in groups to measure sections and describe rocks. Otherwise, the activity assumes students can be confronted with a stratigraphic sequence, describe it, and interpret it effectively. The challenge presented will depend on the outcrop complexity. So chose an outcrop of appropriate difficulty.

Description and Teaching Materials

Take your students to an outcrop that can be described in a reasonable amount of time. Dive them in to groups of 2 or 3, and have each group photograph the outcrop, sketch the outcrop, and write rock descriptions of all sedimentary units observed. Students then draft the rock descriptions and digitally create a three panel outcrop documentation visual for homework.
Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 450kB Jun16 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Make sure students have the required equipment (acid, hammers, hand lens, digital camera, etc.). Many students will forget to bring a scale bar, so you may have to remind them or provide one. Most students have very little idea how to photograph anything to make a coherent panorama, so this will probably need to be explained in the field, otherwise students will have to go back out and photograph the outcrops again.


Student's rock descriptions are graded for completeness, brevity, and English, while the three panel diagram is graded on professional presentation. Usually students can benefit from simple suggestions that will improve the look of the final product.

References and Resources