Geoscience field camp takes the classroom to the mountains

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Tina Porter (B.S.’13, Geology and Geophysics) left the flat farmlands of Wisconsin for the rugged terrain of the Utah mountains this summer to put her geology skills to the test.

Porter and nearly 70 other students spent six weeks in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains — with peaks as high as 13,600 feet and mountain ranges extending a combined 260 miles —as part of the Wasatch-Uinta Field Camp based in Park City, Utah.

“It is a lot more interesting (geologically) than Wisconsin,” Porter says. “The rock formations are exposed. You get a lot of variability, and the view is absolutely breathtaking.”

Field camp, a mainstay in many undergraduate geology programs across the country, is the capstone class taken by many geoscience students as they prepare to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A consortium of schools put on the camp each year, and UW-Madison joined the program in 1972. This summer, students came from schools across the Midwest, with 15 from UW-Madison.

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“I literally don’t think there is a more interesting spot in North America that you could find,” says Phil Brown, a UW-Madison geoscience professor and the director of the Wasatch-Uinta Field Camp. “Within a 50-mile circle, you can see rocks of all types. Every geological event that has happened in North America is within that circumference. It’s extremely fortunate for us.”

Although not a required course in UW-Madison’s Department of Geoscience, field camp offers students the opportunity to take lessons learned from years of classroom work into a natural setting.

“For me it was just really cool to have things kind of click,” Porter says. “Everything you learned in class starts to make more sense when you apply it to the field.”

One of the perks for those students that choose to go: The Wasatch-Uinta Field Camp teams up with ExxonMobile and Newmont — the second-largest gold mining company in the world — each year to give students a chance to connect with professional geologists.

This year, Newmont led the students on a three-day excursion that included a tour of one of the company’s mines near Park City. Experiences like that can be eye-opening for young geologists who never previously considered careers in the mining industry, Brown says.

Lynnette Kleinsasser (B.S.’04, Anthropology and Geology & Geophysics) is proof. Kleinsasser, a field camp student in 2004, had been more interested in pursuing a career in archaeology. Now, nine years later, Kleinsasser works for the world’s largest gold mining company, Barrick, which mined more than 7.4 million ounces of gold in 2012.

“The geology skills I learned at UW-Madison were definitely the foundation for everything that has come afterwards,” says Kleinsasser, who makes computer models of the Cortez Gold Mine in Nevada to estimate the amount of gold in the ground.

Still, despite the beautiful scenery, completing field camp is no easy feat.

Each day begins bright and early at 6:30 a.m. with breakfast, before the students and instructors head out to map the landscape and identify geologic formations at a variety of locations within driving distance, including the San Rafael Swell and Grand Teton National Park. They return by 5:30 p.m., but the day’s tasks are not completed until the students have each turned in their final maps and findings by 10 p.m.

It might sound exhausting. But the payoff can be immense.

“There’s an old saying that the best geologist is the one that has seen the most rocks,” Brown says. “That’s true. You need to have seen things and thought through things to really pull it all together.”

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