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Today@Sam Article

Geology Trip Puts Student Boots 'On The Ground'

July 11, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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For 30 years geology professor Christopher Baldwin (center) has been leading students on an excursion to the Pyrenees Mountains and Ainsa Basin, in Spain and France, that puts geology into action, allowing students to gain hands-on experience with large river systems and tectonic environments. When he retires next year, assistant geology professor Joseph Hill will take over the trip. —All photos submitted


Sam Houston State University geology major Jessica Poeschl leans over a riverbed and studies the rocks glimmering at the bottom. Beside her, her classmate, friend and fellow geology student Leah Jackson fingers a few smooth stones. She makes a few notes in her field book and then takes a break for a moment, perching on a rock near the water’s edge.

In front of her is the majestic backdrop of the Pyrenees Mountains, and the hot spring sun in Ainsa, Spain, beats down on her.

While some students choose to go to the beach or home for Spring Break, Poeschl and Jackson were two of six students handpicked to attend a geology trip to Spain and France, where they studied ancient river delta environments, sedimentary structures, and mountain formations.

The excursion into the Pyrenees Mountains and the Ainsa Basin provides students with a world-renowned site for studying how large river systems deposit sediments and how they change over large expanses of geologic time and interact with changing tectonic environments, according to Joseph Hill, assistant professor of geology, who attended the trip with geology professor Christopher Baldwin. Baldwin has been leading this invitation-only trip for 30 years and will retire with his wife next year to his home in France. Hill will take his place as leader in 2014.

The ancient rivers that formed the Ainsa basins are analogous to other large, modern river systems such as the Mississippi River, he said.

“Every major oil company on the planet uses the Ainsa Basin as a training ground for their petroleum geologists as most of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves are formed in deltaic environments,” Hill said. “The (invited SHSU) students experience firsthand the 4-D complexities of the river deltas and apply that knowledge to how these deposits form and how deposition changes through time.”

These students didn’t get any class credit for the trip, but the experience and knowledge they bring home make it more than worth it, they said.

During the trip Jackson and Poeschl said they met a lot more than just rocks, recalling interesting locals, staying at hostels and “eating so much food.”

(From left) Zac Smart, Jamie Russell, Joseph Hill, Jessica Poeschel, Leah Jackson, and Will Fay stand at the top of the medieval citadel of El Ainsa. The modern village of Ainsa is at the foot of the citadel and it is still occupied, according to Hill. "The mountain in the background actually shows a large thrust sheet that slid off the Pyrenees during their formation," he said.

“We mostly did sightseeing along the way, since we were seeing the geological sights too,” Jackson said. “The places we were at were relatively small, rural places with not too much tourism, so we encountered a lot of cultural differences; plus a lot of us only spoke limited Spanish. It was incredible to be able to experience another culture and study geology too. Being in Spain, it was looked like we were in ‘The Sound of Music.’”

The class taught them about the Earth, but also about life beyond the classroom and post-graduation in the field of geology.

“Dr. Baldwin took us to famous locations within the geological community for some of the best exposures of the things we are studying in class,” Poeschl said. “You can learn about it all you want in class, but it doesn’t really click until you get to see them in person. It’s a small trip, but it’s a big deal.”

Hill emphasized that there is much more to geology than what a textbook is able to cover, or lab exercises are able to explore.

“Book learning is great but there is absolutely no better teacher than actual field experience. Geology is fundamentally a field-based, observational science and you can’t really understand it without getting boots on the ground. Geologists have a saying: ‘whoever sees the most rocks, wins!’” Hill said. “While our on campus courses prepare students in the fundamental knowledge needed to explore the planet from a scientific point of view, the complexities of the real world are not easily demonstrated in the classroom. Getting immersed in the subject is always the best teacher.”

As geology majors, Poeschl and Jackson said they each have a major “rite of passage” coming up: field camp, a required five to six weeks of geologic field study. What Hill calls “the capstone experience in geology,” field camp allows SHSU students to complete fieldwork at sites all over the world, ranging from the Wind River ranges in Wyoming, the Uinta Mountains in Utah, the Jemez mountains in New Mexico, and the northern Rockies in Montana to Cape Fold Belt in South Africa and the Anatolian Mountains Turkey.

The group investigates ancient delta deposits that have been upturned during the formation of the Pyrenees.

“Most of the students learn more from this experience than they could in an another year of course work,” Hill said. “We think of it as on-the-job training or interning as a medical doctor. That’s where the real learning and gaining experience begins.”

Jackson said Spanish and French excursion serves as a major resource and advantage for their upcoming field camp experience.

‘The things we learned on this trip we will use at field camp,” Jackson said. “Part of the reason the classes in the geology department are so hard is because it is a relatively small and limited program at Sam. The curriculum has to be intense so that when we go to field camp, we can keep up and do well. This trip helps tremendously in preparing us for field camp and helping us to stay with the other universities that have bigger programs.”

Though they didn’t receive class credit for the trip to Spain and France, assignments were incorporated for their own benefit, and a lot of work done in their lab field books will be among the most important tools they will take with them once they leave Sam Houston and enter the professional world.

Hill said that the geology program curriculum—which encompasses physics, chemistry and biology—is designed to expose students to a range of career paths- including petroleum geology, environmental geology, industry, teaching and others. Three students from Sam Houston’s geology department have gone on to Imperial College in London, one of the top petroleum schools in the world.

After graduation, Hill said that many students go on to graduate-level programs at other universities across the United States and the world, noting that geology is in the top 10 careers for salaries for graduates, with a zero percent unemployment rate.

With futures looking shiny like the rocks in their French mountain streambeds, both Poeschl and Jackson emphasized that the trip with Baldwin was an extraordinarily valuable and honorable experience they will take with them after graduation—along with their guidebooks.

“Dr. Baldwin is very renowned in the geology field, and to be chosen for this trip was amazing,” Poeschl said. “He is very professional at school, but outside the school atmosphere, he is very fun and has great sense of humor. I loved it, being able to just to go out and absorb his knowledge like a sponge.”



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