Geologic Column: Beyond geology, field camps teach teamwork and inspire leadership

by Lisa A. Rossbacher
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A tent camp in the Chisos Mountains in Texas offers a temporary home for students during a regional geology field course run by the College of William and Mary. Credit: Jessica Ball.

For undergraduate geology students, field camp is a rite of passage. And the importance of the experience, in terms of properly training and preparing geoscience students to become geoscience professionals, should not be underestimated. Over the years, the number of geoscience field camps has declined substantially. This is unfortunate, but we have reason to hope that more schools will again start offering field camps soon.

Recent reports indicate that field camp attendance has nearly tripled in the last 15 years, which bodes well for a number of reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, field camps teach teamwork, leadership and scale in a way that traditional classroom education cannot. In addition, swelling field camp enrollments suggest there will be a supply of young professionals to help offset the vacancies in industry, academia and government created with the departure of baby-boomer geoscientists, who are currently retiring at a rate faster than they can be replaced.

For many geoscience students, field camp is their first real experience in applying what they have learned in the classroom and laboratory. They put theory to work. They see for themselves how the natural world is far more complex, more intricate and more beautiful than textbooks and lectures can portray. Students who can connect in a physical — as well as an intellectual — way with the science are more likely to continue in their discipline and to be ready to move into the workforce after graduation.

Field camp and fieldwork teach budding geologists about scale in a way no other learning activity can. As in biology and physics, the geosciences deal with the world on scales that range from molecular and microscopic to planetary. Whereas individual disciplines, such as geomicrobiology or astrogeology, often focus on only a specific part of this range, field experiences can help students see the connections.

A fault scarp can be understood through slickensides on the fault surface and an overview of regional tectonism. Fluvial processes can be viewed in a mud puddle and a massive glacial outwash plain. The details of volcanism are revealed in a single phenocryst, an outcrop, and an entire mountain range. Remember the cliché about the person who can’t see the forest for the trees? Geoscientists must consider the hand sample, the outcrop, and the regional context — all at the same time.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a column in Esquire Magazine: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I would argue that the sign of a first-rate geoscientist is the ability to hold an understanding of multiple scales (in both time and space) in the mind at the same time. Oh, yes, and to be able to function, too.

What students learn beyond physical geology in field camp is also priceless. Being part of a field team offers an object lesson in group dynamics and the importance of teamwork and leadership. The experience involves constant adjustment of leadership styles and roles, as well as sharing of ideas, perspectives, theories and data. At its most effective, fieldwork teaches the value of inclusion, diversity and respect. It demonstrates that every individual brings vital attributes to the group. And it carries the lesson that the group is more important than the preferences of any individual, particularly when it comes to safety.

Last April, I spoke with a student organization called “GLOW” (Geoscience Leadership Organization for Women) at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, during which students shared reflections from their fieldwork experiences. In their own words:

“Teamwork is just as important as leadership in the field.”

“You have to be able to work in a team but still be able to be confident in your decisions and lead a group of people.”

“Leadership in geology is about asking questions in new ways.”

“[I have learned] how to collaborate and work in groups effectively, especially when mapping.”

“Take others' opinions into account to help you be a better leader.”

These are powerful lessons that will be important in the students' future. And they apply equally well in the board room and in project management as they do in field camp.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is the new president of Humboldt State University in California as of July 1. Email: The views expressed are those of the author in her private capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the university.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.