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Studying Aquifers in Outcrop

Mary Savina, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this field lab, students describe two (or more) different rock types in outcrop, with an emphasis on the hydrogeologic properties of the rocks. The field lab culminates with a paper that may be a layperson's account of aquifer behavior, a scientific report on the outcrops studied or a number of other models.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals


  • Visualizing ground water flow


  • Observation, sketching and description of outcrop features
  • Correlating stratigraphic, post-depositional and structural features with groundwater flow
  • Explaining a scientific phenomenon (groundwater flow) in layperson's terms
  • Estimating rates of groundwater movement

Context for Use

This lab can be used to augment or replace more traditional outcrop descriptions. In a physical geology course, it might become a field lab on local stratigraphy. In an environmental geology course, it might substitute for a local stratigraphy lab.

I use this lab in tandem with a pump test exercise. Each works perfectly well on its own, too.

This lab can take between two and four hours.

Equipment needs:

  • Meter sticks or staffs marked in decimeters or tape measures
  • compasses
  • bottles of water (optional)

Teaching Materials

This pdf file (Acrobat (PDF) 11kB Sep7 06) is a sample field lab handout for this exercise.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on how detailed you want the students' descriptions of the outcrop features to be, this lab can take anywhere from two hours to more than four hours. Three hours (about an hour at each of two exposures with travel time in between) is enough time for students to describe the rock features, do some sketching, ask questions, take notes and understand the major hydrogeological implications of the outcrops. It is not enough time to construct detailed stratigraphic sections of more than a meter, particularly in a rock unit as complex as the Jordan Formation (a major aquifer in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin). As an instructor, you will have to decide on your priorities and convey them to the students.

Because the concept of "aquifer" is a difficult one for both students and the general public, an interesting assignment based on this field lab is to have students write a commentary piece for the campus or town newspaper, describing how water moves through the ground, what an aquifer is, and why people should care about aquifers.


Students' sketches, detailed stratigraphic sections and writing based on this field lab can be assessed for understanding, clarity of diagrams and writing, and accuracy (both of concepts and of the specifics of the units). This lab also forms a good basis for written essay quiz and exam questions.

References and Resources


Geoscience:Geology:Sedimentary Geology, Geoscience:Hydrology:Ground Water:Geology of groundwater occurrence

Resource Type

Activities:Field Activity:Field laboratories

Special Interest

Field-Based Teaching and Learning

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Ready for Use

Ready to Use:Meets Peer Review Standard:Anonymous Peer Review, Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Solid Earth:Earth Materials:Rocks, Hydrology, Ground Water


Earth surface:Sedimentary Geology, Human Dimensions/Resources, Hydrosphere/Cryosphere:Groundwater:Geology of groundwater occurrence


Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Hydrology/Hydrogeology, Sedimentary Geology, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Water