One night in early June, after a day in South Dakota's Badlands National Park, Mo McReynolds '10 and her fellow travelers pitched their tents and settled in for the night. It had been a picturesque summer day--sundrenched and without a cloud in the sky.
But overnight, when everyone was soundly tucked into their sleeping bags, everything changed. A storm rolled in, and 45-mph winds ripped tents right out of the ground. One camper lost two tents to the storm that evening.
While many campers learn firsthand why the National Park Service warns visitors that "sudden and dramatic weather changes are common," the experience told McReynolds one simple thing: This was going to be a great trip. Only five days before that memorable night in the Badlands, McReynolds, a senior geology major, and 44 fellow students piled into nine university vans for a 35-day journey of experiential learning at its finest. The caravan was the annual pilgrimage known as Field Camp, which has been run by Lehigh's earth and environmental sciences (EES) department for the past 35 years.
The students, primarily in their junior year, are given a distinctive opportunity to spend a summer conducting research in nature's laboratory. "Experiential learning is really important," says Frank Pazzaglia, professor and chair of EES and Field Camp director for six years. "Because many students are visual learners, they remember things by physically doing them. It's critical that we teach good observation skills in an uncontrolled, natural environment. And you can't get that on a blackboard."
For 35 years, Lehigh students have headed out to the Badlands and beyond for the annual pilgrimage known as Field Camp, where they spend more than a month conducting research in nature's laboratory.
Field Camp is a six-credit course, not a five-star vacation. Leading the nine passenger vans is a 4x4 SUV and a Penske truck loaded with camping gear, research instruments, maps, field computers, and the necessary food and cooking supplies for a long stay under the stars. During Field Camp, 13 Lehigh faculty members, graduate students, and teaching assistants rotate in and out of the program to provide a comprehensive learning experience. They pair lessons in ecology, geology, hydrology, and geomorphology with lessons in hiking, camp-stove cooking, and teamwork. Even time on the road during the 6,000-mile trek across the country is viewed as a learning opportunity.
"If you take either Interstate 90 or Interstate 80, you build an incredible story of the geology of the country and the human history of America pushing from east to west," Pazzaglia says.
Despite the rigors of camp life, this year brought one of Field Camp's largest cohort of students. Eight Lehigh students were joined by undergraduates from across the country, including the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and the University of Tennessee. Most students convened in Bethlehem to commence the trip, while a few joined in along the way.
"It's a great experience for students from all across the country to get together and learn," Pazzaglia says. "They come from different cultural and educational backgrounds."
Students are also exposed to research conducted by Lehigh faculty. Pazzaglia and EES professor Dave Anastasio have previously worked on projects associated with active tectonics in the Northern Rocky Mountain area around Yellowstone National Park. Students in this year's camp were able to study the geomorphic evidence of those active faults and use the same techniques to determine their own answers to questions related to earthquake activity and seismic energy.
"This is one way that our research enterprise feeds back into the teaching," Pazzaglia says. "Students get more excited when they hear two researchers on an outcrop arguing. They're learning the skills of observation and pulling facts together."
For McReynolds, the Field Camp experience was more than a great trip with erratic weather--it confirmed her desire to devote her career to science. A Colorado native, McReynolds arrived at Lehigh unsure of where her academic life would take her. As a freshman, she enrolled in Pazzaglia's course, "The Geology of War," and knew she had found her calling.
"Before field camp, I was nervous about what to do with a geology degree," says McReynolds, who is also an outside hitter for the Lehigh women's volleyball team. "But dabbling in different geological fields and experiments in the West solidified in my mind that I was doing the right thing and getting the right degree."
Pazzaglia says McReynolds' experience is not unusual. "It's a motivational program," he says. "Students come in as students, but they walk out of it professionals. They grow up academically and personally."
Robert C. Marshall '83 is a former Field Camp participant who has put to practice his educational experiences as a senior staff geologist for Shell Exploration & Production in New Orleans.
"Field Camp is often a career-changing experience for the young geology student, and I have seen many a student on Lehigh's Field Camp become fully committed to the study of geology only after attending Field Camp," Marshall says.
Young geologists, however, aren't the only ones who benefit from Field Camp. David Seduski '10 is pursuing a double major in earth and environmental sciences and international relations. He hopes to pursue a career in government, working on energy policy or foreign diplomacy.
"We did a lot of lessons on stream flow dynamics, which I hope to use in future work with alternative energies," Seduski says. "There was one day we visited a natural gas drilling site to observe how geologists worked with the seismic technologies. Most of our exercises were very useful, from rock formation processes to properties of soil. I think it will all be very useful should I be lucky enough to get a job in the energy sector."
A career in government may be an ideal situation for Seduski, who at times found outdoor living more challenging than the hands-on work.
Rain accompanied 19 of the first 21 days of the trip, and a June snowstorm became the norm. Seduski also longed for a roof over his head, indoor plumbing, and reliable cell phone service.
Planning for next year's Field Camp began as soon as the last van was unloaded back in Bethlehem.
And while McReynolds has returned to the warmth of her campus home, she still fondly recalls her Field Camp journey--the professional opportunities and the personal friendships.
"It's more than just geology and school. That's what's so nice about it," she says. "It was an experience to say the least."
Story by Tricia Long
Posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2010