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VOGAN, NATHAN W  St. Lawence University.
Lennon, Brendan  St. Lawrence University.
Robinson, Stephen D  St. Lawrence University.
Lamoureux, Scott  Queen's University.

Recent research studies sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other science educators have shown that the most effective learning environment is experiential, or “hands-on,” and steeped in investigation throughout all four years of undergraduate learning. The proper study of geology involves extensive field study to supplement material obtained from textbooks and received in lecture. The field study approach gives students a chance to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in a relevant setting. Field study should include sites where certain facies, formations, and features can be seen, as well as localities where there is an active, or “direct encounter” with the processes of formation/deposition of similar material. However, many colleges and universities do not have access to adequate field locations, they lack funding, or are simply lacking a developed program to take advantage of the sites they may already have.

The St. Lawrence Valley of New York and Ontario, Canada has a dynamic glacial history and is therefore an integral part of the undergraduate Geology and Geography departments at St. Lawrence and Queen’s Universities, respectively. Students are frequently exposed to numerous glacial features and deposits dating to the late Wisconsinan. However, faculty have found that many students are unable to fully comprehend the link between glaciers and glacial deposits because all local field expeditions are in areas where glaciers do not current exist. Additionally, courses in geomorphology at universities in eastern North America suffer from a general lack of highly active contemporary geomorphic processes such as slope processes and braided river development.

In order to better understand the nature of the paleoglacial environment in Pleistocene New York and Ontario, a two week trip (August 14-27, 2003) to South-Central Alaska was undertaken by students and advisors from St. Lawrence and Queen’s Universities to study both contemporary and Pleistocene glaciations, as well as active geomorphic processes. The field trip for students at St. Lawrence University required a half credit semester course in the spring of 2003 in order to become familiar glacial geology and geomorphology of the region. In addition to lectures, students were required to prepare a paper on a related topic to be assembled into a field guide (Robinson, 2003) for the trip. Some sample research paper topics included the Quaternary geology of South-Central Alaska, braided river dynamics in the Knik River, glacial hydrology of the Chugach Mountains, and dendrochronolgy of Western Prince William Sound.

The route chosen for the trip (Figure 1) was designed to expose the students to a variety of different processes active in the glacial and periglacial environment with stops in Portage, Valdez, Worthington Glacier, the Copper River Basin, and Matanuska Glacier. Once in the field, students were taken to numerous road cuts in the region around Valdez and the Copper River Basin, and after a period of individual study, were given supervised lectures on the formation/deposition of each. Students were then asked to relate the road cuts to episodes in glacial deposition. Later stops included an extensive examination of a lahar deposit, peat formation in a permafrost-affected bog, and active permafrost melting. Students were also required to initiate and lead group discussion at the field site relating to their chapter of the field guide.

A major focus of the trip was to provide students with opportunities to develop independent projects that they would research during supervised group stops and on their own time. These projects were meant to teach students the investigative skills needed for field study, including how to make quantitative measurements, examine spatial and temporal variations in data, look for patterns in variation, and investigate the relationships among these various factors. Therefore, the students were also required to learn how to operate field equipment such as a GPS receiver, a conductivity meter, a dissolved oxygen meter, a tree corer, and a current meter. The projects that were pursued included a comparison of contemporary glaciers of South-Central Alaska, Quaternary geology of the Copper River Basin, intertidal environments of the Valdez Arm, proglacial lake sedimentation, stream gauging, and dendrochronology studies to reconstruct climate. Project results were presented in a mini-conference two months after the trip.

The entire trip proved to be a valuable teaching tool in helping students better understand the glacial environment. The projects proved to be the cornerstone of the trip, and have encouraged the development of several senior theses and other independent research projects to be carried out during the summer of 2004. The preparation done by the students of St. Lawrence University during the spring of 2003 helped them immensely in the field, as they seemed to be more engaged and cognizant of the area under study. This experiment of study in the field has proven to be an effective model for other research disciplines at other colleges and universities, whether it is as large a logistical task as a two week trip to Alaska or the study of a local site of geologic interest during the semester. This trip shows how a successful combination of proper planning, supervised lectures, and independent field work can lead to a significantly greater understanding of the subject matter by the student. We believe that by making the students personally responsible for much of their own learning, especially the development of a field guide, responsibility for group discussions, and research projects in the field, made the field trip a much more engaging experience.

ROBINSON, S.D. (editor), 2003, A Field Guide to the Geomorphology of South-Central Alaska, 141 pages. Available from

Figure 1. Map of South-Central Alaska showing the field trip route. (Robinson, 2003)

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