Students experience the life of a field geologist.
Students in Jason Rech's summer geology course are getting ready for class. They unzip their tent doors and crawl out onto the dew-covered grass at Morgan's Canoe Livery in Brookville, Ind.,19 miles from Miami’s Oxford campus.
They open the back doors of the red van, where they store their pantry of food when they're not at camp. Otherwise, alert raccoons could help themselves to the buffet. Loaves of bread, bags of chips, bagels and jars of peanut butter (lots of peanut butter) are lined up on the van floor. The breakfast of the day is what students dub "The Whitewater Bagel" with cream cheese and crunchy bacon to represent the sand that sifts onto everything.
The wardrobe for class includes swimwear, shade hat or baseball cap, water shoes and sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.
This first-time course is the brainchild of Rech, associate professor of geology and environmental earth science at Miami. The students and professor camp for a week at the livery, where as a team they learn to canoe, conduct field research and cook on a camp stove. Not necessarily in that order.
The eight students in the “Geology of Streams in Ohio and Indiana” workshop pack for their first workday on the Whitewater River, loading drybags with peanut butter sandwiches, field notebooks, ever-present cell phones, trowels, pickaxes, sterile jars for soil samples and other research tools.
"Don't forget your paddles," Rech reminds them as they load their gear into the back of livery van, climb in, and settle down for the roller-coaster ride along hilly back roads to their sandbar launching point.
The young driver hefts two canoes at a time down to the riverside. Soon, the canoes are loaded with their gear. The students gather around Rech and Tom Buckley, one of two instructors from Miami’s Outdoor Pursuit Center who spent two days coaching the students in paddling skills. Buckley will accompany the class each day.
"Let's look at the current," Buckley says. "See how the strainers (fallen trees) block one of the channels. How can you safely avoid that?"
"We can paddle over to the far channel. It's clear, no obstructions," says Kimberly Thilberg, who just got her undergraduate degree in zoology and minor in geology at Miami and who’s starting her master’s in earth science education.
They climb into the red canoes, paddle upstream and then, in a smoothly choreographed move, turn their boats downstream into the current.
The Whitewater River flows briskly through rural southeastern Indiana to join the Great Miami River, which empties into the Ohio River west of Cincinnati. White and green mottled Sycamore trees lean over the banks providing shade and roosting branches for gawky great blue herons.
Bald eagles have repopulated the area in the last 15 years. Rech points out their distinctive giant nest in a tree across the river from the launching spot. The day before, the class saw an eagle in the nest and the white-headed parents circling protectively overhead.
But these signs of improving health to the ecosystem are tempered by issues like fertilizer runoff from corn and soybean fields that abut the river. Soil erosion from the field continually changes the river's channels.
These issues bring Rech's workshop to the river to study the effects of land use and climate change. Just as important, the class gives students the chance to experience the life of a geologist by camping out in the field, setting research goals and gathering and analyzing samples.
“You can only learn so much in the classroom,” says Rech. “Seeing the sediment and testing hypotheses about how climate or land use changes may have affected the streams, it really gives the students firsthand experience in trying to evaluate primary data.”
After 20 minutes of paddling, the flotilla beaches its canoes on a narrow sandbar bordered by a 10-foot-tall dirt cliff and a cornfield.
They quickly unload the equipment from their drybags and gather around Rech. He opens his orange field notebook and sketches the cliff face, noting the different strata and soils. Showing them his sketch, he coaches them in taking field notes.
He then pulls out a handful of sample tubes from a ziplock bag and distributes them. With a pickax, he loosens soil from the cliff and assigns teams to study different layers of the cliff. Soon students are scraping soil samples into the tubes and jotting down notes in their field books.
Using eyedroppers of weak hydrochloric acid, they test the soil samples for calcite. Because it’s one of the first minerals to leach from exposed soil, the less calcite, the more the stream sediments have chemically weathered over time.
In addition to visual observation and chemical testing, students learn to use taste to identify samples. Rech picks up several small grey clumps of sediment and hands them to students. “Rub them against your teeth,” he says. They laugh nervously and follow his instructions.
“If you feel fine grit, that’s siltstone. It’s made of sediment that’s somewhere between sand and clay,” Rech explains. The students nod.
Fall semester, Rech and students who want to continue their research will conduct more sophisticated testing in the geology labs. But for now, they’ll continue their long days of field work.
“The class is really awesome, going into the woods for a week and looking at streams,” said Thilberg, who, as a future science teacher, wants to encourage hands-on discovery that sparks the imagination for students of any age.
Written by Tracy Chappelow, University Communications and Marketing
Published, August 2013