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By Dana Beasley
For the Las Cruces Bulletin
Every other year, a group of 15 to 20 New Mexico State University geology undergraduates embark on a three-week expedition through time and space — geologically speaking, that is.
To satisfy degree requirements, these students, mostly seniors, are given the opportunity to put their years of classroom education to use as they travel all over New Mexico to camp, map and document the organization and structure of various geologic locations. The group is led by Brian Hampton and Reed Burgette, assistant professors in the Department of Geological Sciences at NMSU.
“We’re really trying to push their comfort zone in terms of their ability to map, identify and distinguish rock types, and put together the tectonic history of part of New Mexico,” Hampton said.
These efforts take the group to a number of sites, including the Doña Ana, Jemez and Sangre de Christo Mountains, as well as San Lorenzo Canyon and the eastern margin of the Colorado Plateau.
When selecting regions to study, Hampton and Burgette look for areas with just the right amount of geologic complexity to engage the students without leaving them discouraged or overwhelmed.
“We want to be realistic — we don’t want to break their spirits, but we want to test the knowledge they have acquired during their undergraduate coursework,” Hampton said. “We also want to expose them to some of the amazing geology that New Mexico has to offer.”
Which, in Hampton’s opinion, boasts some of the finest exposed geology in North America.
Spending three or four days at a given location, the students begin to develop an understanding of spatial and temporal relationships, and how rock formations record change through geologic time. “One of the ultimate goals in the geological sciences is to better understand predictability in the Earth system,” Hampton said. “For example, if you go to one specific locality and study a specific group of rocks, you have an idea of what happened right then and there. But if you pair that with studies in other localities with the same age rocks, you’ll begin to see subtle to significant changes in the system.”
With this approach, the students really start to put together a 3-D understanding of how geology works through space and time.
This sort of perception is relevant to many disciplines, Hampton explained. “Really, anything anybody does depends on how things change through space and time — whether you’re an historian, economist, journalist — anything.”
However, those other professions likely don’t require three weeks of tent-living and limited personal space. These circumstances become even more problematic when you consider the “primitive” state of some of the group’s campsites, meaning pit toilets and no showers for days on end.
As for the actual field work, “physically, it’s really exhausting; a lot of the students haven’t done anything at this physical level before,” Hampton said.
In addition to ensuring the student’s health and safety, Burgette and Hampton work to keep morale high by giving the students a half-day every so often to relax, travel to nearby towns, catch up on their projects or do laundry.
But, Hampton assures, it’s not all sweat and tears. He recalled his own undergraduate field camp experience: “It was this ominous, scary thing,” he said. “But as soon as you get doing it, you realize how much fun it is — how rewarding it is.”