College of LAS « Illinois

Earth Sciences

Rock Solid Experience

Geology field camp earns reputation as one of the best in the country.


When it comes to learning how the landscape was formed, nothing compares to being out among the dry creek beds and mountain lions of the American West to study rock formations. Illinois has known this for decades, and now its geology field camp is being recognized as one of the best in the nation.

Each summer, a caravan of Illinois students and faculty drives some 1,400 miles west of Urbana-Champaign to Park City, Utah, where they spend the next six weeks immersed in study at the Wasatch-Uinta Summer Field Camp. Living out of a dormant ski hostel, they spend their days and nights observing, sketching, and mapping one of the most geologically diverse regions in the country, if not the world.

Within driving distance of the camp are gold mines, oil fields, active faults, and a variety of rock formations that hold the Earth’s history. In the morning, students might examine debris dumped by a flood into a desert basin, and in the afternoon they can be climbing through an alpine meadow to see frozen lava left by a volcano 35 million years ago.

“Basically we see geological structures through the entire sequence of time starting about two billion years ago to the present,” says Michael Stewart, professor of geology who has accompanied students on the trip in recent years. “There are major events that occur in Earth history during this span of time, and evidence of these events are preserved in the rocks that we find in this area. Places that the students have read about in textbooks exist here.”

Field camp is required for most Illinois geology majors. Wasatch-Uinta is run jointly with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, and University of Minnesota-Duluth, with students and faculty from all four universities attending at the same time and working together each year. Illinois alumnus Ed Franklin (BS ’56, geology), a former geologist with Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil), generously helps Illinois students pay for the course through the Franklin Summer Field Camp Endowment.

For the past several years, Illinois alumnus Kurt Burmeister (PhD ’05, geology), professor at the University of the Pacific, has served as co-director at the camp, and program enhancements that he introduced led to this year’s Geological Society of America/ExxonMobil Field Camp Award, which garnered the camp a $10,000 prize for field safety awareness and technical excellence. The award is recognized as the product of many years of giving students hands-on training to assume roles in oil, mining, and other industries.

“There’s less need now to have students memorize a lot of things because so much information is available electronically,” says Tom Johnson, head of the Department of Geology. “Problem-solving is therefore the most important part of our undergraduate program, and field camp is key to that.”

Illinois joined the Wasatch-Uinta camp in 1985, after having run a summer camp on its own out of Sheridan, Wyo., for a few decades. The goal is the same, however. Each day during camp, the roughly 50-70 participants head out the door by 7:30 a.m. to clamber over the remote and rugged Utah terrain for measurements, rock and fossil identifications, and plotting data on maps—all while taking care to keep hydrated in a landscape inhabited by scorpions, rattlesnakes, moose, and mountain lions (the latter of which has been spotted only once during the past decade, though signs of the cats’ presence is common at nearby sheep ranches).

The students return to the ski lodge in time for dinner, and they spend their evenings revising and correcting their work, writing reports, and preparing graphical images based on what they observed in the cliffs, valleys, and mountainsides surrounding them. By being immersed in the field, organizers say, students hone their intuition about how to predict what’s below ground given what they can see from above.

In addition to studying the land near Park City, the students also embark on longer field trips to places such as gold fields in Nevada, Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, the San Rafael Swell of central Utah, the Grand Tetons, and other features in this geologist’s paradise.

“Basically the purpose is to allow students to take what they learned in all of their courses and apply it to the real world,” says Stephen Marshak, professor of geology and head of the School of Earth, Society, and the Environment, who taught at the field camp for several years. “This is the stage in their career where they change from being geology students into geologists, because at the end of field camp they are able to look at rock exposures, look at landscapes, and understand what they’re telling us about Earth’s history.”

The question foremost in students’ minds, of course, is whether all the work is worth it, and by all accounts, it is. Aside from the deep knowledge students gain at field camp, many come away knowing which direction they want their career to go. Some even come back with job offers. Marshak says companies visit the camp, and some graduating seniors land new jobs on the spot.

Ashley Howell (BS ’11, geology) never considered the petroleum industry as a place to launch her career in geology, but after meeting a representative from ExxonMobil at field camp, she decided that she wanted to try it. She interned at ExxonMobil during graduate school, and eventually she landed a full-time job at the company searching for oil off the coast of Nigeria. The ExxonMobil representative she met at field camp has been her mentor at the company.

“It’s not really until you go to field camp, and you’re immersed in it for six weeks and seeing these concepts in three dimensions, that it clicks in your mind,” Howell says. “Field camp was really a major factor in developing me into the geologist that I am today.”

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2014