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Glacial Geology in the Field

Mary Savina Carleton College msavina@carleton.edu
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This resource received an Accept or Accept with minor revisions rating from a Panel Peer Review process

These materials were reviewed using face-to-face NSF-style review panel of geoscience and geoscience education experts to review groups of resources addressing a single theme. Panelists wrote reviews that addressed the criteria:

  1. scientific accuracy and currency
  2. usability and
  3. pedagogical effectiveness
Reviewers rated the resources:
  1. Accept
  2. Accept with minor revisions
  3. Accept with major revisions, or
  4. Reject.
They also singled out those resources they considered particularly exemplary, which are given a gold star rating.

Following the panel meetings, the conveners wrote summaries of the panel discussion for each resource; these were transmitted to the creator, along with anonymous versions of the reviews. Relatively few resources were accepted as is. In most cases, the majority of the resources were either designated as 1) Reject or 2) Accept with major revisions. Resources were most often rejected for their lack of completeness to be used in a classroom or they contained scientific inaccuracies.

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

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)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Mar 25, 2004

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


Where did the glaciers come from? In how many ways can glacial sediments be deposited? What do the sedimentary records of glaciation tell us about the source and processes of glaciers?

Learning Goals



Context for Use

This field lab works well with several content areas of an introductory geoscience course: climate change, surface processes (glaciation and rivers), formation of sedimentary rocks.

Minimum time required is two to three hours, depending on the complexity of the exposures and the number of tasks for the students.

Equipment needed:

Teaching Materials

Teaching materials might include the following:

Follow this link (Acrobat (PDF) 115kB Mar11 04) to a sample glacial geology lab handout from Carleton College.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This lab can focus on either or both of two subjects: 1) glacial provenance (based on the rock types in the glacial material) and 2) depositional environment of the glacial material (based on observations of sedimentary beds and stratigraphy).

Students need some background in rock identification to solve a provenance problem. In addition, a rock type that may not be particularly abundant or obvious often identifies the glacial provenance. For instance, in southern Minnesota, all the glacial sediments have granite, metamorphic rocks (including greenstone) and carbonates. Those from northwest Minnesota have fragments of Pierre Shale (and mainly small fragments, at that) and those from northeast Minnesota have fragments of vesicular basalt, red sandstone, and a few other distinctive rocks from the Lake Superior Basin. However, you can turn such complexities into "teaching and learning moments" for the students.

Depending on the particular exposure or gravel pit, you and the students may be describing till, ice-contact stratified drift (for instance, in a kame), and/or outwash. Various layers may be clast-supported or matrix-supported, laminated or not, deformed or undeformed by glacial movement and ice melting, and of various grain sizes. The variety adds levels of interest and also complexity. You may want to direct students to particular locations to begin their observations.

This is a good lab to work on sketching of geologic features, as the layering and varying grain sizes of glacial materials are obvious from a distance. For detailed stratigraphic descriptions, you may want to recommend that students tackle a meter or two at most, depending on the length of the lab.

Slopes in gravel pits are inherently unstable and students should be cautioned not to climb on vertical slopes that are currently being mined. If the pit is inactive, students will be able to climb up slumped deposits and carefully excavate fresh sections adjacent to those slumps for description. In all cases, students climbing on gravel pit slopes need to be aware of others above and below them. Consider bringing hardhats for students (and you) to wear.


The assessment method chosen will depend on the particular purposes of the field lab and the course. You may ask students to include copies of their pebble counts, stratigraphic sections, sketches and other observations. In a lab report, students can be asked to interpret the provenance and the depositional environment of the glacial sediments. If you've had groups of students study different parts of an exposure, each group could present its results orally.

You can also devise exam questions based on the field lab activities.

References and Resources



Geoscience:Geology:Sedimentary Geology:Provenance, Depositional environments, Geoscience:Geology:Geomorphology:Landforms/Processes:Glacial/Periglacial, Environmental Science:Global Change and Climate:Climate Change:History and evolution of Earth's climate, Paleoclimate records, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climate Change:History and evolution of Earth's climate, Paleoclimate records, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climatology

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

Surface Processes:Glaciers, Climate, Atmosphere, Solid Earth:Earth Materials:Rocks, Solid Earth:Earth Materials


Climate, Time/Earth History


Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Geomorphology, Atmospheric Science, Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Climate Change, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Sedimentary Geology

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