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Geology Students Explore Yellowstone

It has spawned some of the largest explosions on earth, engulfing hundreds of square miles with lava and throwing ash on most of what is now the United States. And while scientists don’t expect Yellowstone to erupt again for a few thousand years, the lava flows and geysers that dot the landscape of northwestern Wyoming and parts of Idaho and Montana are fertile ground for anyone studying geology.

During Fall Break, earth science professor Jeff Walker led a trip to Yellowstone National Park and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to give his students a closer look at the giant, still active volcano. Walker was joined by 11 freshmen, five upperclassmen, and visiting earth science professor Stephanie Peek on a trek through the park, inspecting geysers and lava flows left there in three major eruptions over the past two million years.

The trip was planned in conjunction with a Freshman Writing Seminar, Volcanoes and Civilization, to give the students an idea of what geologists do when they engage in research.

“Yellowstone is one of the biggest volcanoes in the world—everybody has heard of it,” Walker says. “And the facilities in the park are conducive to what I wanted to do.”

The group arrived at the park on October 13, staying in cabins where they cooked their own meals. Over the next five days, they toured the park, stopping at rock formations and geysers the students had researched during the weeks leading up to the trip. The 11 students then made their presentations at the sites of their research.

Conor Maguire ’16 prepared his paper on the Echinus Geyser in northwestern Wyoming. 

“Standing on top of it while I was explaining it was an amazing experience,” Maguire says.

Jordann Funk ’16, who delivered her talk on a rock formation called the Hoodoos, says Walker’s approach for the trip—making each student an expert on a particular site in the park—was “truly empowering.”

“We’d get to a geyser or lava flow and he’d say, ‘Okay, now we’ll hear from someone who knows a lot more about this than I do,’” Funk notes. “I think we all paid more attention, knowing we’d be giving our own talks, and being right there made understanding everything so much easier.”

Yellowstone’s last major eruption occurred more than 600,000 years ago, but the students learned about the volcanic activity that is still roiling beneath the surface. They studied rock formations created when lava pours out of the earth and learned how geysers are formed by water from melting snow that seeps through cracks in the earth to the hot layers of rock just a few hundred feet below.

The lessons weren’t confined to the hikes to the sites themselves. Most nights after dinner, Funk says she and others would gather in the cool night air outside the cabin, gaze at the sky (“There were shooting stars every night we were there,” she says), and discuss what they’d learned that day.

That camaraderie has carried over into the classroom now that the students have returned to Vassar.

“Our discussions are much livelier now because we’re all comfortable with each other,” Funk says. “We’re eager to share our opinions.”

Earth science major Jeremiah Bernau, one of the seniors who acted as a mentor on the trip, says the friendships he saw forming among the freshmen were similar to what he had experienced when he went on a field trip to Oregon with Walker during his sophomore year. 

“Immersing yourself in your subject matter like that is a great way to learn, and as the students became more comfortable with each other, they asked each other more about their assignments,” Bernau says. “It’s typical Vassar thinking, empowering the students like that.”

Another senior, Patrick Donohue, says Walker had ensured that the trip included information on subjects other than geology, benefiting freshmen who may decide to major in other subjects.

“We saw a lot of bison, and some coyotes and foxes and antelope,” Donohue says. “We learned about the history of the area and the vegetation and the wildlife.”

Some of that information was provided by Vassar alumna Barbara O’Grady, who graduated from Vassar with a degree in geology in 1974. O’Grady lives just outside the park and her company, Wild Bear Adventures, runs tours there.

“I have tremendous passion for Yellowstone. There’s so much to learn, and I love sharing what I know—and to be able to do it for Vassar students was really special,” she says.

Funk says she never expected to experience such an adventure in her first semester of college and says she’ll never forget it.

“The trip was transformative,” she concludes. “We didn’t just visit Yellowstone. We experienced it.”

—Larry Hertz

 Photo by Isabel Larrow ’16; Slideshow images by Isabel Larrow ’16, except images 6 (unknown) and 10 (Professor Jeff Walker).

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, October 1, 2013