On-the-ground experience teaches students about geology

Upperclass geology and marine geoscience students stop during a return hike following investigations of shoreline deposits from ancient Lake Bonneville, which is now the modern Great Salt Lake, with the Wasatch Mountains in the distance. Photos by Emma Weber, James Klaus and Hannah Shernisky.
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Upperclass geology and marine geoscience students stop during a return hike following investigations of shoreline deposits from ancient Lake Bonneville, which is now the modern Great Salt Lake, with the Wasatch Mountains in the distance. Photos by Emma Weber, James Klaus and Hannah Shernisky.

On-the-ground experience teaches students about geology

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
University of Miami undergraduates spent a month last summer in Utah and Wyoming tracing the origins of North America through some of its most beautiful topography.

Before this past summer, Hannah Shernisky had never been to Utah. Nor was she aware of quite how many geological wonders the area contained.

But in July, Shernisky and 11 other geology and marine geoscience majors spent four weeks traversing Utah and Wyoming on a geology field course, where they learned about the transformation of North America’s landscape revealed through the many lakes, cliffs, mountains, and volcanoes around them. 

“You can literally see the succession of rock and go back in time and history to learn different things about the past,” said Shernisky, a senior marine sciences and geology major. “I had always wanted to go to Utah, and I wasn’t disappointed.”

During the trip, the students spent each day hiking through mountains, valleys, deserts, and around rivers and lakes with James Klaus, associate professor of marine geosciences who created the new course with the help of the University’s Study Abroad office. Since a field experience is required for all geology majors in the United States, the program usually travels to Canada every other summer. But with travel limited to domestic locations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Klaus, who also directs the University’s undergraduate geological sciences program, had to find a new location. After talking with colleagues—including marine geosciences professors Sam Purkis, Gregor Eberli, and biology lecturer Terri Hood, who visited and guest-lectured during the trip—Klaus decided to craft a new course based in the American West and chose Utah as its base camp.

“Utah sits at the boundary of several interesting regions—to the east are the Rocky Mountains, to the west are the basin and range provinces of California and Nevada, further south is the Colorado Plateau, and up north is a hot spot trace leading into a volcanic caldera near Yellowstone National Park,” he said. “The West is spectacular because it has a full range of geological settings and problems for the students to look at.”

Along the way, students learned how to map and identify different types of rocks and minerals and saw how to determine their place in history while hiking in some of the nation’s most varied and majestic landscapes. They also gained knowledge on how to classify different sedimentary layers, uncovered marine fossils from more than 50 million years ago, and left with a tangible understanding of how studying geology can help explain the earth’s past, present, and sometimes, its future.

“It was like walking through time,” said Iva Tomchovska, a senior majoring in geology and biology. “That part of the country is so heavily tectonic. And there’s a large history of mountain building and rifting events, so that’s why you get a lot of changes. We saw rocks that were billions of years old, as well as the more recent Morrison formations that are famous for holding dinosaur bones on the Colorado Plateau.”


Klaus did not waste any time. Starting at 8 a.m. each day, the students boarded the van with a waterproof field notebook and clipboard, a geologic hammer, hand lens, safety glasses, and water. Klaus brought University-provided compasses, fossil identification books, and maps. They started by exploring the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater body in the western hemisphere, where students studied shoreline geology, along with modern sediments and microbialites, which are rock-like structures formed out of microbes and mud. The Great Salt Lake is a remnant of a prehistoric freshwater lake that was much larger, called Lake Bonneville.

Next, the group headed southeast toward the Colorado Plateau, which also contain the Book Cliffs. This was one of Tomchovska’s favorite stops because the cliffs formed the basis for an area of geology called sequence stratigraphy, or the concept of using each layer of rock to determine how landscapes evolved through time. This is an area that Eberli specializes in, so he joined the group for that section.

“That whole area is like a layer cake of sediments. And we drove through deposits of each layer, and looked and identified the differences in formations,” Tomchovska said. “Lots of geologists have spent their entire careers there, so it was unique to see where the whole idea of sequence stratigraphy came from.”

The Book Cliffs are also important because they offer evidence of the Cretaceous Interior Seaway (also known as the Western Interior Seaway), a shallow waterway that cut through the middle of North America more than 100 million years ago. This was a concept that Shernisky was introduced to in some of her geology courses. “It was cool to see remnants of that seaway,” Shernisky said.

After the Book Cliffs, the group headed north to Wyoming and visited Yellowstone National Park, where they learned about plate tectonics in a place where magma can be found just a few miles under the ground.

“Yellowstone volcano is not a traditional volcano, because it is more visible in geysers and hot springs. But all of those things are byproducts of the heat from that magma close to the surface, which produces things like mud volcanoes, that look like bubbling pots of mud,” Shernisky said.

Also in Wyoming, the group visited Fossil Butte National Monument, as well as a quarry nearby with rocks from an ancient body of water called Fossil Lake. There they spent a few hours hunting for fossils.

“We were handed a hammer and chisel and once the rocks split open, you could find perfectly intact fossils. And we got to keep them too,” Tomchovska declared, adding that she found at least five fish with their scales intact. “These were from the Eocene age, so they were 50 million years old.”

Another feat of geology the students enjoyed firsthand was a trip to Arches National Park in southern Utah, where they discovered how the delicate formations developed in sandstone rock (largely through erosion). They also learned about the Moab fault, which runs through the park.

Overall, students said the class helped them truly understand how to determine the importance and function of certain geological features, as well as to gain authentic experience as budding geologists.

“The hands-on experience of making interpretations in a real-life setting, when you’re just looking at a rock in the middle of nowhere, gave me a new level of experience and ability to make these connections. So, I feel much more confident as a geologist now,” Shernisky said.

Klaus said that is precisely what he hopes students accomplish.

“When they start this course, most students have very little perspective of what it means to be a geologist and look at rocks to unravel the history of the earth,” he said. “But at the end of the course, they really emerge as geologists. And you could take most of our students to any area of the world and they could explain what the rocks are telling us about the earth, as well as the natural hazards and economic resources there.”