Learning from the ground up

At the College of the Environment’s geology field camp, students hit the dirt for lessons you can’t find in a textbook.

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At just past 2 p.m. in early July, the temperature in southwestern Montana is hovering around 93 degrees.

Impervious to the heat, Michael McGroder climbs swiftly up a steep, rocky hill where a group of geology students and teaching assistants from the University of Washington stand observing two small ridges below.

It’s their fourth day at Block Mountain, just outside the town of Dillon, and the students are trying to map an area known informally as the Rat’s Nest. The name is well earned by this giant tangle of rocks: The oldest layers are somehow on top of younger layers, some layers are upside down, and the entire Triassic period (the layer that formed between 251 million and 199 million years ago) is missing in places.

“Geologists love a good murder mystery,” says McGroder, the group’s instructor — and making sense of geologic complexities is akin to tracking down the culprit.

Over six weeks, his students tried out their detective skills by mapping, surveying and exploring this slice of Big Sky Country as part of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences’ geology field camp. For many of them, it was their first opportunity to practice geology like a professional would.

A landscape made for learning

UW students have been coming to field camp in Dillon for 25 years — and they’re not alone. Mud-splattered vans with license plates from West Virginia, Texas and Georgia attest to the area’s widespread draw.

What brings people here? In this area, erosion has laid bare an astounding 3.2 billion years of Earth history, giving students the opportunity to cut their teeth in geologic settings they’ve only read about before.

“In the classroom, everything is much more black-and-white,” says field camp participant Ruslan Pavlenko, ’17. “Whereas here, it’s all right in front of you, and you’re able to see the bigger picture.”

Michael Barber and Mary Alice Benson
Joshua Anderson on a hillside
Weston Brown and Esten Kingis crossed by a thrust fault
Top: Michael Barber (left) and Mary Alice Benson head to the top of a ridge. Bottom left: Joshua Anderson examines a piece of the hillside. Bottom right: Weston Brown (left) and Esten King study a thrust fault — where one section of land slips over another.

During camp, the UW students work on mapping projects that take them from Dillon in the south to Glacier National Park in the north. Arguably the hardest work is at Block Mountain, where they spend six eight-hour days mapping the large site, including the Rat’s Nest.

Block Mountain and other areas around Dillon are special for another reason, too: Over the years, geology field camp instructors have honored an informal “gentleman’s agreement” to never publish research on the sites, explains McGroder. This has left them spoiler-proof for questing students — a true rarity in the digital age.

Giving back by going outside

McGroder has overseen field camp since 2016, but he’d been to Dillon long before: As a master’s candidate at the University of Montana, he was a TA for a field camp in the area and was impressed by its learning opportunities.

He went on to a Ph.D. program in geology at the UW, with Professors Emeritus Jody Bourgeois and Darrel Cowan (who led field camp for its first 23 years) as his advisers.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1988, McGroder spent a long career at ExxonMobil. When he retired a few years ago, he sought a way to give back beyond financial support by sharing his industry knowledge with geology students. When he ran into Cowan at a conference, his former adviser suggested that McGroder try his hand as field camp leader.

While it’s clear that McGroder makes a lasting impact on his students, being around them has changed him as well. “It’s energizing for me to think back to when I was that age and had epiphanies about what I wanted to do for a career in geoscience,” he says.

McGroder’s teaching style has also resonated with the group. “Mike was very hands-off,” says UW senior Allison Nelson. “But if you asked a question, he’d be very detailed and point you in the right direction. It was great.”

  • Jacqueline Sherburne, ‘18

    Home state: Washington

  • Joshua Anderson, ‘18

    Home state: Minnesota

  • Allison Nelson, ‘18

    Home state: Washington

  • Fairuz Aisyah Binti
    Ahmad Zamri, ‘18

    Home country: Malaysia

  • Michael McGroder, ‘88

    Home state: Texas

  • Bing Yu Lee, ‘18

    Home country: Malaysia

Preserving field camp for future generations

Across the country, field camps are disappearing or consolidating — many factors, including the growth of remote-sensing mapping strategies and the rise of lab-based technologies, have played a role in this shift. The UW is one of the few remaining universities to operate its own program, which means that securing funding is more crucial than ever.

Without the field camp experience, students would miss out on essential knowledge, techniques and personal growth that can set them up for success. “They gain so many skills beyond simply learning to make maps — skills that come only from spending six weeks out here,” says McGroder. He particularly hopes that they build scientific confidence and learn about science communication, as students who wish to pursue a career in geology need to be able to tell the public about their work in a way that non-geologists can understand.

Nelson experienced several a-ha moments during her time at field camp. “You climb on top of a ridge, and it clicks,” she says. “Suddenly all the rock formations you’ve put on your map make sense, and you can actually figure it out.”

In her final year at the UW, Nelson plans to take classes that expand the knowledge she gained during field camp, and she’d like to continue with geology after graduation. Many other camp participants also intend to pursue careers in the field.

“When they come to camp, they’re geology students,” McGroder says. “When they leave, they’re geologists.”

Mary Alice Benson's journal

Explore this firsthand account of a UW senior’s career-defining field camp experience.

Originally published February 2018

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The UW’s geology field camp is made possible by the generosity of donors. You can help future students take advantage of this incredible learning opportunity by supporting the Geology Undergraduate Field Support Fund.