Field Trip to Explore Local Natural Disasters

Dr. Robert W. Clayton, Brigham Young University-Idaho
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Every semester (3 times per year), we take all Natural Disasters students on a field trip. This semester, we took 603 students. We visit the Teton Dam, Henry's Fork caldera, and Hebgen Lake (1959) earthquake area. Students study topics including causes of the dam failure (geologic, engineering, and bureaucratic), the nature and evolution of calderas and the Yellowstone hot spot, tectonic setting of the Hebgen Lake earthquake, causes of the Madison rock slide, and damage by fault surface rupture and mass wasting. At each stop, faculty discuss the topics and guide students in field observations. Students answer a series of written questions to get credit for the field trip.

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Learning Goals

The concepts and content are listed above. Students learn field observation skills -- the ability to take concepts learned in class and apply them in the real world. This activity addresses risk by observing areas affected by a historic earthquake and nearby analogue sites where development is taking place. We have extensive discussion of resilience by discussing how eastern Idaho communities were prepared for, responded to, and were changed by failure of the Teton Dam.

Context for Use

BYU-Idaho is a four-year private undergraduate university of approximately 27,000 students and growing rapidly. The Natural Disasters course is an option for Freshman and Sophomores in the general education program. Approximately 1200-1800 students take the course per year on campus, and another 1200+ take it online (without the field trip). Students have typically studied earthquakes and landslides before going on the field trip. The feasibility and content of a field trip like this is entirely dependent on the location of the school.

Description and Teaching Materials

The mechanics of the field trip are typical of field trips. Faculty lead each trip consisting of 2 buses, with a previously trained TA on the second bus. We discuss what's outside the windows along the entire route, beginning with the shield volcano our campus is built on and the floodplain in Rexburg. We stop at all the sites in the accompanying Google Earth tour, which is used in conjunction with the field trip, both as a preview and a summary.

Google Earth Tour (KMZ File 5MB Apr10 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

My experience is that the value of a good field trip is hard to over-state, and they should be used whenever and wherever possible. Don't let the logistics scare you!


Initial assessment is in the answers students give on the field trip hand-out. But the real assessment comes later -- classes are very different after the field trip! Students are much more engaged and interested.

References and Resources