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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Tarduno leads students on 'Field Quest'

by John Tooley '00


John Tarduno, associate professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a spring-break excursion to California to study active geological processes. The eight University undergraduates who accompanied Tarduno on this trip were given exposure to the material they had previously been studying in the classroom. This type of teaching is not new for Tarduno: In addition to an earlier California trip, he also has led three expeditions to the high Arctic. All four journeys involved undergraduates. Here, Tarduno discusses his most recent adventure.

Who gets selected for this trip?

This trip is part of an undergraduate Quest course called Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Mountain Ranges: A Field Quest. All the students enrolled in the course made the trip. The whole idea behind the trip is looking at active geological processes, such as earthquake zones, fault zones, volcanism, and mountain building. The way that we do this is through field observations and putting things into a coherent picture for the students. In addition to our undergraduates we also had three graduate students on the trip.

Where did you go?

We started our trip at the edge of California, which is right on the Pacific plate, and we traveled up to the border between California and Nevada. We spent a few days camping on the San Andreas Fault, then we went up to Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there we proceeded to Death Valley and Owens Valley.

This type of an experience is pretty unusual for undergraduates. Why do you do it?

This represents a "fast track" to geology for our students. We can teach things in a lecture format, but actually going out in the field and seeing things grabs people much more quickly.

For example, most people are aware that parts of Death Valley are below sea level, but they are not aware that there is an 11,000-foot mountain relatively close to the valley. Students could see this at an overlook called Dante's View (shown on Contents page). In this area a large fault is tearing the Earth's crust apart, thereby creating the large contrast in elevation between the mountain and the valley.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing these processes in the field is certainly worth a thousand pictures. I think the students really enjoyed it, and they get a lot out of the trip. Interestingly, I've had quite a few professionals tell me they wish they had gone on a trip like this sometime early in their careers.

What are the challenges of such a trip?

It's difficult to show the entire geological transition from the Pacific Ocean to North America in a 10-day trip; it's more like a three-year project. Also, I have to strike a balance in what I teach in the course. I have some students who have had no prior geological experience; on the other hand, there are students who have had an introductory course in geology and I don't want to bore them with basic concepts. A lot of times on the trip I would find myself showing different things to different people. However, I think we got across what we wanted to.

Can you tell us about the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University?

We have a relatively large undergraduate program. I wish I could take them all on a trip like this, but the course has to be small in order to work. The course is not required, but we strongly encourage all our students to be involved in some type of fieldwork.

One of the strengths of our department is our research. We have state-of-the-art instrumentation on campus, which allows us to examine things here in Rochester. However, you also need to go out in the field, which is why we try to balance things. For example, we have a new faculty member joining our department, Carmala Garzione, who has extensive field experience working in Nepal.

What are some modern-day implications of what you study?

One of the things we do in the course is to talk about geological hazards. We review the active monitoring of fault zones, study earthquakes, and examine potential volcanic hazards in California. Then, we actually go and visit these places. Whatever the students decide to pursue in the future, however, I think they will better understand the processes that shape the Earth, which is the first step to understanding man's interaction with the environment.

Are you planning any future expeditions?

We would like to do another Quest course, but I'm not sure it will be next year. I will be running another expedition to the Arctic this summer. Students who would like to apply for the expedition can find out more on our home page: We'll always do more of these trips. It's a big part of what we do.

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