Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum > Case Studies > Integrating Scientific Discovery in a Field-based Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology Course
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This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
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This page first made public: Dec 1, 2011

Integrating Scientific Discovery in a Field-based Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology Course

Ship Rock at Sunset. Research-intensive courses in the field put students in settings where they can experience the geology, environment, and culture. Details
David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College


At Fort Lewis College, the Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology class, formerly a separate three-credit course required for the major, is now an elective course taught only when demand warrants, typically once every several years. This course was recast into an inquiry-driven research course with a field-intensive focus. This course was designed to complement and reinforce existing curriculum while sustaining student engagement with rocks and petrologic processes, as well as bolster meaningful student-faculty research opportunities.


This course is taught in the field in the Southern Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau, and it is focused on petrologic studies relevant to my current research on igneous and metamorphic systems in the region. Field sites are typically confined to specific sites where all students in the class work on different problems.

This class has been taught with two different formats. In one format, all of the students study problems related to the same geologic feature (e.g., Ship Rock), and develop projects that focus on different aspects of the geology. The other format that has been tried is to have students develop projects around different geologic features in a similar area, but the focus of the projects are not the same. In the latter format there is a wider variety of projects, but less of a common thread amongst the various activities.


Junior- and senior-level undergraduate students who had completed courses in introductory petrology and field methods.

Class size
A Fort Lewis College undergraduate student collecting samples for class research in the San Juan Mountains. Details

10 to 15 students is nominal to deal with logistical issues.

How the activity is situated in the course

Research is the focus of this course. All activities, lectures, discussions, and exercises are designed with the research goals in mind. The design of this field-intensive course fits the blueprint for undergraduate liberal arts education recommended by DiConti (2004) where course work is supplemented by intensive activities outside the class. The combination has the benefit of providing the required coverage of topics needed for educational advancement, while at the same time providing opportunities to gain experiences and insight into activities that are essential for career development and professional outreach (Carver, 1996).



Undergraduate students at Fort Lewis College working in the field at Ship Rock with Steve Semken in 2003. Details
This format allows undergraduate students to investigate advanced topics in petrology through field research while developing skills for continuing education and scientific careers. These courses serve the needs of the students by promoting critical analysis and inquiry, and building on content taught in previous courses to solve actual geologic problems. The first offering of this course focused on volcanic and plutonic features exposed at Ship Rock. Additional offerings focused on igneous and metamorphic problems in the western San Juan Mountains. One of these courses also collaborated with Doug Yager of the U.S. Geological Survey to investigate volcanic systems of the San Juan Mountains.

The research developed in these courses continues to seed undergraduate studies on geosciences topics that have made contributions to the broader scientific community. The work done in this class on Ship Rock in 2003 was the basis for an NSF-RUI grant that was funded to further support our research in the Navajo volcanic field from 2010 to 2012.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations


Teaching Materials

References & Other Sources of Information

Gonzales, D., and Semken, S., 2006, Integrating undergraduate education and scientific discovery through field research in igneous petrology: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, no. 2, p. 133-142.

Gonzales, D., and Semken, S., 2009, A comparative study of field inquiry in an undergraduate petrology course in Whitmeyer, S.J., Mogk, D.W., and Pyle, E.J., eds., Field Geology Education: Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches : Geological Society of America Special Paper 461, p. 205-222.

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