Geological Excursion to Death Valley, California

July 1, 2011


Click to view a slideshow of the Spring 2011 field course in Death Valley 


When 19 Columbia and Barnard students packed their bags for spring break in California, they weren’t bound for the beach, but for the hottest, driest, and arguably the most intriguing geological landscape in the country. Columbia University Professor and Lamont-Doherty researcher Nicholas Christie-Blick, along with graduate teaching assistant Elizabeth Pierce, led these first- and second-year undergraduates on an eight-day expedition to investigate the dynamic processes that formed Death Valley’s exquisite natural beauty.

The trip—which alternates annually with an excursion to Mono Lake led by Professor Sidney Hemming—is one of several field-based courses available to undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard. Such courses challenge students to be careful observers and creative scientific thinkers, using clues in the landscape to form and defend their own hypotheses. “It has to do with internalizing science as a methodology,” explains Christie-Blick.
Through a series of seminars in the weeks leading up to their departure, students with diverse backgrounds and interests learn to analyze geologic maps, conceptualize vast timescales, and recognize basic earth processes. But it was on mountain peaks, in valleys, craters, gulches and quarries that the students learned how to view the environment through the lens of an Earth scientist. What caused older rock layers to sit above younger ones on this mountain? Why is there a 400-ft wide gap in the middle of this ridge? What was life like prior to the evolution of the first animals more than half a billion years ago?
Out of cell range and thousands of miles from the Manhattan grid, students weigh in on some of the most hotly contested questions in sedimentary geology and tectonics. Christie-Blick, who conducts research in this region, incorporates his recent findings into the course, and engages the undergraduates as he would his colleagues. “Our purpose isn’t to communicate received knowledge,” he says. “It is to ask critical questions about the evidence on which competing interpretations are based.” Indeed, through this unique course, students return to campus as inquisitive evaluators of the complex world they live in.