MicrosoftTeams-image 4
Field camp group photograph at the Grand Canyon

Field Camp is an immersive capstone course for geology majors in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, and as 2023 student Ben Thorp says, “it rocks!” During this three-week course, students apply classroom knowledge in New Mexico’s spectacular field sites, gaining hands-on experience in mapping and independent study.

Field camp is designed to provide an in-depth, hands-on experience for geology students. As Karl Karlstorm, distinguished professor in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, puts it, “Field Camp is an immersive geology capstone course that is essential in shaping geologists. All our alums and almost every geologist looks back on their field camp experience and says, ‘it was rough, and it was tough, but I survived, made great friends, and synthesized all the classwork.’”

Students are challenged to work in unfamiliar environments and a variety of weather conditions. They collaborate in small groups to survey the area and create detailed, colored maps.  “In my opinion, the capstone has to involve some camping and expedition-style geology,” said Karlstrom. While this course can be physically challenging due to extensive hiking and camping, it also offers rewarding experiences. “This is a physically rigorous course as there is a significant amount of hiking and carrying supplies around the area to locate and measure the contacts between different rock layers,” added Ben Thorp. 

Field Camp_8236
Field group taking notes at bubbling springs near San Ysidro, NM.

Karlstorm led this year’s Field Camp capstone with other faculty who brought in different subdisciplines, 16 students and four teaching assistants. They visited and explored four different locations: San Ysidro/Tierra Amarilla Anticline, Jemez (Sulphur Springs in Valles caldera), Estadio Canyon in the Manzano Mountains, and the grand finale of the Grand Canyon. “Students get a lot of exposure to not only basic boots-on-the-ground field mapping, but also a lot of newer sorts of integrative techniques. A lot of field camps from other universities come to New Mexico and we’re lucky that this is all right in our backyard.” said Karlstrom.

During this experience, students worked on all types of rocks that make up New Mexico’s Geoheritage: metamorphic and plutonic rocks in the basement, the layers sedimentary rocks with fossils that encode the evolution of life on Earth, and the uplift and volcanism that has shaped our modern landscape. “These field observations and rock/mineral identifications allow the students to discuss how environments changed and were shaped in deep time,” said teaching assistant Sarah Mielke.

The class analyzes every aspect of the landscape and rocks. Students first examine the broader landscape and analyze the morphology of the land and underlying tectonics, lithologies (rock types), and geologic histories. They then focus on targeting local outcrops, studying the history, climate, and tectonics. Finally, students analyze hand samples for mineral assemblages, grains, and clasts, allowing them to make scientific assumptions about the field site and greater Southwest.

Teaching assistant Cameron Reed commented on this experience saying, “This is the first time many students are venturing outdoors to this extent and applying so many skill sets at once. While it may be a real challenge at first, it absolutely sparks a curiosity for geology and natural environments for students. It is also confidence boosting, students leave camp feeling proud about their accomplishments and gained problem-solving ability! They come out of the program with an incredibly broad set of skills in natural sciences ready to take on whatever they choose to do after they graduate.”

Field Camp_3005
Field camp students look over the field area near San Ysidro, NM.

One of the most important parts of Field Camp is the practice of mapping. Karlstorm describes geologists as detectives, stating, “Geologists are like detectives who search for clues, piece them together, and reconstruct the ‘crime’ by looking at what the rocks are going to tell them. These four projects provided them with the opportunity to examine rocks of different ages, types, and structural styles, applying everything they learned throughout their degree.”

While students learn to map, it’s crucial for them to identify different rock units, understand the degree of plane tilting, and evaluate orientation to define the fold. “They must identify all these different rock units and comprehend their history, because each layer has its own story about what this area was like at a given time, such as in the Jurassic Period,” said Karlstrom. 

Field Camp_8219
Professor Karlstrom working with students on mapping fault features at San Ysidro.

Sarah Mielke, who served as a teaching assistant in this year’s field camp, recalls her own field camp experience. “My field camp advisor used to say that the best geologists were the ones who had seen the most rocks, and I find that to be true. In the field, you can see a variety of rock types, from sedimentary to igneous to metamorphic. Field camp really gives students a great starting off point for their careers, even if those careers don’t necessarily involve mapping. It is an experience that tries to promote confidence in skills, as well, and I find that very important.”

Field Camp Capstone is a crucial component for a geologist as it prepares them for the next step in their career. According to Karlstrom, “To truly learn something, you have to immerse yourself in it at a high level, and that’s exactly what these students did.” While these students gained firsthand experience of being geologists, the Field Camp also equipped them for their professional journeys.  “This hands-on experience aligns with what the students will encounter in their professional journeys. Our students enter the mineral, oil, and gas industry while others pursue careers in the environmental sector, including fieldwork, subsurface exploration, and three-dimensional views of the subsurface geothermal environment. Students can apply the skills they learned in field camp,” explained Karlstrom.

Field Camp_8338
Field camp students work with Professor Tobias Fischer measuring CO2 flux at Sulphur Springs in the Valles Caldera field area.

Field Camp not only prepares students for future success but also fosters strong friendships, boost confidence, and enhances skills. “Field camp is one of the most impactful classes that these students take in their career. I remember for myself that it was some of the most fun and most challenging work in my undergrad. It’s difficult to find a class where you take away so much in terms of skills, confidence, and friends.” shared Cam.

The University of New Mexico is unique when it comes to offering this capstone course. While it may be challenging to fit Field Camp into a regular semester-based school model, Karlstrom ensures that the course takes full advantage of the remarkable landscape in New Mexico. “These sorts of special programs are difficult to fit into the model of a semester, so we must take advantage of New Mexico and our amazing landscapes and our amazing geology. This intensive course offers that to students.”

Teaching assistant Sarah Mielke provides firsthand insight on why to enroll as a geology major. “Geology is an incredible subject to make the focus of your study for a variety of different reasons. Geology has such an important connection and role to the development and advancement of species, especially hominids. Geologists are essentially the ones who help to tell the story of the Earth and solar system. Studying geology also allows for a variety of options in career fields: geochemistry, geobiology, mineralogist, cartographer, geodesy, meteoritics, geophysics, structural, environmental, engineering geologists and many more. Also, let’s not forget rocks are cool.”

Field Camp offers aspiring geologists an immersive experience into the world of geologic mapping and seismology. Students gained invaluable insights into the demanding and intellectually stimulating nature of these professions. Throughout the course, students faced rigorous challenges that tested their critical thinking and operational skills, leading to significant personal growth in a remarkably short period.

"It gave us a clear idea of what we would be doing as professionals if we pursue geologic mapping and seismology. This is a difficult class and will challenge the way you think and operate, but I feel like I learned and improved so much in a short amount of time. I like to tell people; everyone is a geologist; it just takes the right mineral.  One of the significant things I learned during this degree is that although it feels as if everything on the Earth has been discovered, there is so much that we still don't know or are still learning about." - Ben Thorp


Photograph of the Grand Canyon by Laura Crossey
Photograph of the Grand Canyon by Laura Crossey