Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011 | Reviewed: January 17, 2015

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

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).


  • Have students employ field studies to investigate advanced topics in igneous and metamophic petrology.
  • Teach students how to use supporting petrographic and geochemical studies to complement field work.
  • Further develop skills for critical analysis and inquiry.
  • Engage students in advanced topics in petrology.
  • Develop scientific writing habits and presentation skills.
  • Develop skills that are valued for all careers in science (i.e., observations, data collection and synthesis, and dissemination of data).
  • Incite interest and enthusiasm in students for research in petrology and regional geologic topics.
  • Promote interest in topics beyond the class room, and enhance "sense of place."


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

  • A field-intensive research course requires a large investment of time by faculty and students.
  • Results of the classes taught to date indicate that a project focused on a common geologic feature seems to work better than when students develop projects on different geologic features in a given field area. A common theme allows students and faculty to interact more and share ideas as a research team, faculty were able to spend more time with students, and issues around the logistics of the course were reduced.
  • Develop an assessment plan before teaching the class. Consider pre- and post-assessment tools that will allow an evaluation of the impacts of the course on student skills and cognitive development. Assessment of a research course is difficult to develop, but is important for dissemination of results.
  • Work out the logistical issues far in advance (e.g., transportation, considerations in regards to weather conditions, required field equipment, camping, access to field site, etc.).
  • Develop a schedule for mentoring students in the design of projects, collection of data, and presentation of results. Set a schedule of tasks to be carried out that is reasonable and effective.
  • Be prepared for undergraduate students to struggle with open-ended inquiry, critical thinking, and testing ideas and solving problems where reliable and pertinent data are critical to their conclusions. Students in my research classes had a difficult time with the open-ended nature of scientific inquiry. Particularly in the initial stages of these research courses, many of my students required considerable coaching to overcome the expectations of finding straightforward and concise answers typical of textbooks and verification laboratory exercises. Th process involved in scientific inquiry to test ideas and solve problems my need to be nurtured over the extent of the course.


  • Instructors' observations of student performance and behavior.
  • Instructor evaluation of student written products and oral presentations for projects.
  • Institutional summative course evaluations.
  • In-class surveys and activities to assess students understanding of scientific inquiry. An example is a survey (Microsoft Word 47kB Nov5 11) used in the first week to determine the preconceptions of students about scientific inquiry, which was modified from the survey published by Kurdziel and Libarkin (2002).
  • A pre- and post-course assessment survey (Microsoft Word 26kB Oct30 11) of student interests, skills, and outcomes related to the course.
  • 16-point summative survey (Microsoft Word 43kB Oct30 11) to assess student attitudes and learning outcomes.
  • 21-point qualitative summative survey (Microsoft Word 32kB Oct30 11) to assess positive and negative impressions about course, and impacts on students knowledge, interest, and professional development.
  • Post-course evaluation by other faculty (Microsoft Word 40kB Oct30 11) to assess the impact of the course on student development and understanding.
  • Post-course tracking of student success and career paths.
  • Professional contributions by student and faculty.

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.