Initial Publication Date: January 3, 2012

Research Experiences in an Undergraduate Field Geology Course

David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College


The ability to conduct research in the complicated, and often daunting and unpredictable, realm of the field is one of the fundamental skills that defines geologists. Students can be introduced to field studies in various classes, but incorporating research in a field geology course allows students to be immersed in a field problem or problems over the course of several weeks or more. It also provides an opportunity for the instructor to be very attentive to the learning tasks and outcomes of a group of students engaged in inquiry. Field research also allows students to experience the open-ended nature of inquiry where the outcomes are uncertain.

As part of the Field Geology course at Fort Lewis College, I have taught a number of research-field sections that were focused on a various topics ranging from structural analysis to environmental assessment. These projects have provided students with additional opportunities to use field skills to solve geologic problems, and in some instances, to engage with professional geologists outside academia. It also provides a capstone experience with which to assess the geologic skills of undergraduate student near the end of their academic careers.


The Field Geology course at Fort Lewis College is taken at the junior or senior level. The course has been conducted at various locations in the southwestern United States, but many of the field sites are located in the Four Corners region. Over the past 6 years, I have taken the opportunity to develop mini-research projects in this field class to allow students to practice their geologic skills and field acumen on specific geologic problems, some related to my research.

The various topics covered are:

  • A petrographic and structural analysis of a Proterozoic granite-diorite complex in southwestern Colorado.
  • Assessment of acid-mine drainage at the basin scale to determine variations in acid-neutralizing capabilities of rocks and minerals in different areas. This involved the measurement of chemical signatures of streams (pH, TDC, alkalinity), collection of samples for chemical analyses, and describing soils profiles and collecting data to assess soil carbon levels. This work was done in collaboration with Dr. Doug Yager of the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • An analysis of regional joint trends and joint densities in various Mesozoic-Cenozoic sedimentary rock units on the edge of the San Juan basin as a collaborative project with the Colorado Geological Survey.
  • A study of veins trends, joint trends and densities, and controls on mineralization in an underground precious metals mine.
  • Field mapping in an area that was the focus of ongoing minerals exploration by a major mining company. This project was conducted on a section of the region that had been assessed in prior minerals exploration.
  • A field study of Tertiary sedimentary-fluvial units in the San Juan Mountains to measure stratigraphic sections, examine and document clast populations and provenance, collect samples for U-Pb detrital zircon analyses, and further characterize the depositional environments and systems of these units. This work was done in collaboration with Magdalena Sandavol and Karl Karlstrom at the University of New Mexico.

The nature of the field work conducted by students varied depending on the project, but always involved mapping, descriptions of rock units, and collection and synthesis of field data.

Intended Audience

The Field Geology course at Fort Lewis College is taken at the junior or senior level, but is most commonly taken in the summer of a student's senior year.

Class size

This course typically has between 15 and 20 students, mostly from Fort Lewis College.

How is the case study situated in the course?

Research in this course is part of a 6-week field experience. I generally teach 1 to 3 weeks of field projects centered around a research topic.


  • The content/concepts goals for this activity: apply skills and fundamental concepts learned in other courses to conduct research and tackle problems in the field.
  • To be able to compile and use geologic maps and cross sections, make good field observations and collect data, and apply data to a research problem.
  • The higher order thinking skills goals for this activity: formulate hypotheses, collect and compile field data to test and evaluate hypotheses, synthesize and analyze the data, draw conclusions, and report findings in written formats.
  • Learn good habits in the field pertaining to logistics, safety, and skills that are important in geosciences careers.


The ability of students to conduct field studies on exposures of rocks, and compile accurate field data, are still essential skills to create geologic maps and unravel the geologic history of a region. The research projects that I integrate in the FLC Geoscience Field Geology course are intended to get students to engage with the rocks, and use their knowledge and skills to understand and interpret geologic events. The field modules allow students to realize the value of field studies in testing ideas about different aspects of geologic records. The course is required of all students in the program, which also allows this course to be used as a capstone assessment of the learning outcomes of the students.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations

One of the key criteria for a research-focused field course is the selection of the field site to be covered. The site must be reasonable in extent to allow students to examine key outcrops and collect a large enough data set to allow them to draw meaningful conclusions. A reasonable-sized field site will also accommodate a group of students with varied physical abilities. One of my projects was conducted in a field area with relief of nearly 3,000 feet, which made it difficult for students to navigate the terrain and access some of the key locations.

All of logistical issues involving a field project were encountered in these courses such camping issues, access to the field sites, weather conditions, safety in the field, and management of time in the field.

Assessment and Evaluation

The primary assessment tool used in these courses was faculty review of student's attitude and professionalism, quality and completeness of the field data collected (e.g., data was well documented and organized), synthesis and presentation of the data, use of the data to test hypotheses and draw conclusions, and final reports and discussions.