GEL103: Field Geology (Online)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all instruction during Spring Quarter, 2020 was moved online. GEL103 is a course on field geology that is typically focused around 3 field trips (~8 days total) to various destinations in California and Nevada. To accommodate the transition to remote teaching, we did a combination of 'virtual' field mapping using paper-and-pencil maps with Google Earth and digital mapping using the open source GIS software QGIS. GEL103 is a designated writing intensive course, and students write detailed geologic reports to accompany the maps for projects 1-2 and submit a revised version of report 1 based on detailed suggestions. The information here is provided in case the teaching materials are of potential use to instructors at other colleges and universities. I am happy to share course materials upon request including GIS files and exhaustive rubrics used to evaluate student work.

Course Syllabus: Syllabus (Box link)

Mapping software: QGIS

Project 1: Virginia Mountains

Students mapped a portion of the Virginia Mountains using a combination of Google Earth, a high resolution orthophoto, and a topographic basemap.

This project was completed using pencil and paper. Students submitted work by photographing or scanning and uploading their hand inked and colored map.

Project 2: Hilton Creek Fault

The Hilton Creek Fault is part of the Sierra Nevada Frontal Fault Zone and runs across the boundary of the Long Valley Caldera, which produced the ~760ka Bishop Tuff. Students mapped the surface expression of the Hilton Creek Fault using bare-earth LiDAR DEMs, high resolution orthophotos, and Google Earth. Students were provided with age measurements for geomorphic features (moraines, outwash surfaces, lava flows) and asked to think about slip rate variations along the fault in space and time. The kinematics of deformation change as the Hilton Creek Fault crosses the caldera boundary, and students were asked to think about what controls the style of faulting.

The maping was carried out using QGIS 3.12 and generally this was a very positive experience with only minimal technical challenges. QGIS is free and cross-platform and all students were able to install and use QGIS on their personal computers.

Project 3: Gale Crater, Mars

The move to online instruction presented many challenges but also the opportunity to look at geologic maps beyond Earth. For the third project, students mapped a part of Gale Crater, Mars. The landing site and traverse of the Curiosity Mars rover fall within the map area, though students were not provided with this information. The mapping was again carried out using QGIS 3.12. Students were provided with a 50cm HiRISE mosaic, a DEM, and a THEMIS quantitative thermal inertia mosaic for the study region.

This project emphasized (1) the process of defining and describing mappable units, (2) geologic history of Mars, and (3) planetary geologic processes.

Figure (left) is a small subset of the map area, as mapped by Grotzinger et al. (2015).

Assembling California

In GEL103, we typically have the opportunity to have informal conversations about California Geology and get the chance to drive across the Sierra Nevada and visit the western Basin and Range and Long Valley Caldera. As a vehicle to facilitate the kinds of less formal instruction in geology, we read and discussed the book Assembling California by John McPhee. We read the book in installments (each approximately 100 short pages), as published originally in The New Yorker. Students participated in discussions of the reading in groups of 4, lead by TAs and the instructor. Most students opted to buy a physical copy of the book, but some chose to access the articles through the website of The New Yorker. A trial subscription could be obtained for about $6 that lasted the duration of the course. In course evaluations, students noted that reading and discussing this book was a highlight of the GEL103 experience this year.