Monday, August 5, 2013

New Heights:
UNO Researchers Lead METALS Geology Trip

Imagine, if you had grown up in New Orleans, never seen a mountain or glacier, and someone took you to California to see the 400-mile Sierra Nevada. What would you think?

Geology is not taught in most New Orleans public high schools, or in high schools in most states, said UNO researcher Ivan Gill, whose academic background is in geology and biology. Some of the New Orleans high schoolers on this summer's METALS trip had no previous exposure to mountains or geological concepts.

In fact, he said, arriving at Denver International Airport, one student looked out the window at the Rocky Mountains and wondered if the majestic mountain range were a painting.

"We're taking kids from Louisiana, which has no rocks to speak of, from the inner city, where they never have the chance to see them, and we're introducing them to processes that take place deep within the earth and millions of years ago," said Gill, a science education leader at UNO. "And that's a big jump. It's an enormous intellectual leap."

Forty Years of Success

Now in its 40th year at UNO, the Minority Education through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences (METALS) program is designed for minority high school students wishing to explore the earth sciences through field study.

The program is also designed to introduce the high schoolers to the field of geology, which is critical to the oil and gas industries of South Louisiana. UNO's Minority Awareness Geoscience Program was the first such program in the United States.

For 40 years, the free program has helped minority high school students explore the earth sciences aided by college professors, teachers, graduate students and professional earth scientists. This year's METALS program was funded by the National Science Foundation and private donors including Exxon and Shell Oil Companies.

Spell-binding Sights, Spell-Binding Experiences

This summer, Gill, environmental science educator Dinah Maygarden, research associate Heather Egger and two UNO undergraduate geology students, together with researchers from the University of Texas, El Paso and San Francisco State University, took about 40 high school students from the greater metropolitan areas of New Orleans, El Paso and San Francisco on a two-week geological exploration trip through California and Oregon.

The camping, hiking and geological exploration adventure began in the San Francisco Bay area, moved up through the San Andreas Fault up to Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay State Park, where the students and researchers looked at exposures, earthquakes and "very real" seismic activity.

From there, the group continued on to Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park, where the students saw volcanic and hydrothermal terrain.

For a grand finale, trip leaders led the group to Yosemite National Park, where students explored plutons, glacial cycling and glacial terrain.

Plutons, said Gill, are huge underground masses of formerly buried igneous rock. Huge numbers of them have been lifted and exposed to form the spine of the Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile major mountain range running along the eastern edge of California.

The Sierra Nevada is home to Yosemite National Park, the highest point in the contiguous United States and the largest trees in the world, the giant sequoias. It is also an important power and water source, a bastion of American history and one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Glacial erosion sculpted the mountain range's white peaks and light-colored mountains from 100-million-year-old granite.

Experiential Learning

"Most [geological] field trips often take place with University students who have had some geological studies and our kids just don't have that background," said Gill. "Our kids are coming from really no geological background at all because they haven't had a chance to study earth science. They haven't had a chance to experience it."

During their journey, students hiked a 9,000-foot peak and learned history from the California gold rush to the history of the sequoias. At one national park, an African-American park ranger came out in full uniform of a Buffalo Soldier and spoke to the students for some time, introducing them to "a period of history that, really, most of us know very little about," said Gill.

"One of the things that I've tried to contribute is to get more experiential learning, more hands-on learning going on, rather than just the old-fashioned kind of geology trip, which is making observations as you drive along," said Maygarden. "We're trying to make it more experiential and appropriate, to use more hands-on science to make it more appropriate for the age group that we're working with. Since they're high school students, they've had no background in geology. We want them to learn at an appropriate level."

The UNO researchers aimed to provide students a physical grasp to geological processes, so that in future classroom lectures, they will have a strong memory and comprehension of what is going on, said Gill.

Tough Climbs, Quantum Leaps

Getting students to understand these very complex and foreign subjects is no small feat, researchers said. Interpreting geology is not going to come naturally.

"You can actually see this. It's palpable when the kids go out west with us," said Gill, who is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in UNO's College of Education and Human Development. "Think about what we do when make observations: What do you want them to look at? What we want them to look at is time and process when they come to rocks. What you'll see with these kids is they are looking at plants and the shape of the outcrop but not the rock within it."

Years of experience have shown the UNO researchers a vast knowledge gap – and difference in outlook -- between students who have a working background in geology and those who don't. Gill says the difference surfaces the minute he asks students to draw a picture of what they see.

"They focus on very, very different things," the geologist said. "[In geology] you're looking at the rock and trying to understand time and process, the bedding and the geometry of the rock layers, the transition between them and the texture of the material itself," he said.

"They will focus on a plant that they haven't seen before and the roots and the shape of the outcrop but not look at the clues to unraveling the murder mystery in essence. They're looking at the parking lot and the lighting but they forget to look at the expended bullets and the footprints."

Helping students to unravel the mystery they are facing and become investigators is a goal of the trip, said Gill.

"And that is a huge jump," he said. "We are exposing them to things in 10 days that, most of the time, take years to sort out."


Read More

Minority Awareness Program for Geoscience
UNO Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences