Sunday, December 9, 2012

Geography students at UW-Eau Claire explore the Southwest

From  Leader-Telegram:  Geography students at UW-Eau Claire explore the Southwest

Sandy beaches, ocean views, huge sand dunes and military bunkers were the backdrop for part of a recent UW-Eau Claire geography field seminar trip to the Southwest region of the United States.
A student field research project at the Fort Ord Dunes in Marina, Calif. - a former World War I military post that was converted into a state park in 2009 - focused on how giant coastal sand dunes formed over cement bunkers and was the first research to be conducted in the new park.
UW-Eau Claire senior Meghan Kelly, a geography major from Mankato, Minn., said studying the dunes was her favorite part of the trip.
"I am most interested in cultural and human geography so my research focused on the geographical history of the dunes and the human impact on the environment," Kelly said. "Dunes form in a certain way, but the geography of this area makes for a more complicated process to study."
The class collaborated with graduate students from California State University, East Bay, and used ground-penetrating radar to study the layering effects of dunes. Students from both universities continue to share and analyze data that was collected for their research, which will be presented at UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day and the 2013 Association of American Geographers conference.
"Having the opportunity to actually use tools, such as GPR, in the field is a great skill to add to my resume," Kelly said. "None of us have ever used it before, so it was an exciting experience and really took learning beyond the classroom."
Harry Jol, UW-Eau Claire professor of geography, and Martin Goettl, a geospatial technology facilitator at the university, stressed the importance of giving students field experience during their undergraduate education.
"Students developed and processed information differently because they experienced it," Goettl said. "They gained true knowledge of what they were working with and had hands-on experience with geospatial technology."
Phil Larson, a 2008 UW-Eau Claire alumnus and 2000 graduate of Prescott High School who currently is pursuing his doctorate, accompanied the class on the recent trip. He graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a comprehensive major in geography-resource management and a minor in geology and is currently a doctoral student at Arizona State University, working as a geomorphologist.
Field seminars helped prepare him for graduate school, Larson said.
"Not only did they provide useful methodological approaches to varied topics within earth science, they were my introduction to the rigors of the academic publication and research process," Larson said.
Larson certainly made an impression on senior geography major Jackson Becker, of Rochester, Minn. He now plans to follow Larson's path to graduate school.
"Seeing what Phil is doing in graduate school made me really excited," Becker said. "This trip has taught me to look at things in more detail, which is really important in geography."
The class traveled to geographically significant places of interest during the 10-day immersion experience, such as Yosemite, Death Valley and Zion national parks. The final destination was the Grand Canyon, where Larson introduced the class to his colleague, John Douglass, a prominent geographer with alternative theories on the development of the canyon.
Like Larson, Douglass encouraged future geographers to look beyond what is in textbooks and think about new ways of explaining geographical phenomena. Douglass presented the class with the "lake overflow theory," which suggests that over millions of years, rivers from mountains to the east of the Grand Canyon poured water and sediment into a large basin in the northeast side of the canyon, eventually spilling over a low point in the ridge causing the formation.
Becker said he was fascinated by the theory Douglas presented.
"I really got to see geography in action," Becker said. "I always thought science was all figured out, but then here is this scientist teaching us about a cutting-edge theory."
Field research trips are not common among undergraduate programs. Immersion experiences receive financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment, a student-supported differential tuition increase designed to enhance student learning.
"Opportunities for field research are what make UW-Eau Claire such a unique university," Jol said. "Besides developing academic skills, students learned how to work as a team under intense conditions."
Becker said actually seeing the topics he and other students study in class has helped him gain a better understanding of them.
"No matter what field you're studying, going out and experiencing it firsthand makes it all so much clearer. I couldn't be happier that I went on this trip."



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