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Battling COVID-19 in the Field: One STEM School Finds Success in 2020 Earth Science Field Camps

Tuesday, September 1, 2020   (0 Comments)
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RAPID CITY, SD (Aug. 25, 2020) — If you are a student of geology or geological engineering, field camp is required for graduation by most universities. The camps involve several weeks of working and living in close quarters, often in remote locations. Students scramble up and down steep rocky slopes in the daytime and pour over data and maps into the wee hours of the night. It’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s hard and if you’re a geologist, it’s the best time of your life.

But 2020 put the brakes on field camps around the world. Campus shutdowns in the spring left thousands of faculty and students in hundreds of university earth science programs scrambling to find solutions. Amidst the shutdowns, there was a strong demand for students who needed to complete their geology field camps to finish their degree. One group of faculty at the Black Hills Natural Science Field Station (BHNSFS) run by South Dakota Mines found a way forward.

A team of faculty worked out a plan that included adherence to CDC guidelines for reducing the spread of COVID-19, including mask wearing, social distancing and small, isolated teams of students. Forehead temperature checks were frequently taken, and when traveling together teams drove with the windows down, even in the rain, to keep the fresh air flowing. Outdoor field work was combined with online coursework, this hybrid model reduced interactions indoors that could spread the virus. “We purposefully overloaded the beginning of the course so as to keep students busy at home, in quarantine, for the 14 days prior to the start of the in-person field course,” says Nuri Uzunlar, Ph.D., field camp director and professor of geology and geological engineering at South Dakota Mines.

Faculty like Jon Rotzien, Ph.D., president of Basin Dynamics, LLC and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston, point out that fully online geology courses cannot replace the experiences of making geologic maps in the field. “The fundamental skills that students learn throughout the coursework of an undergraduate geology program also require time studying rocks and the natural world in the great outdoors,” adds Ryan Sincavage, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Radford University.

Students and faculty at the camp were also restricted from going out to restaurants and bars in the evenings. This reduced the likelihood that someone could become infected off site during the course. “If a student or instructor were to become symptomatic at any time during the camp, we had plans to place the entire cohort under quarantine,” says Chris Pellowski, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of geology and Geological Engineering at South Dakota Mines.

In a normal year, the Black Hills Natural Sciences Field Station offers camps in many corners of the world, Turkey, New Zealand, France, Spain, Morocco, Iceland, Ecuador, Nepal and the United States. But this year, international travel restrictions and COVID-19 safety necessity cancelled all but a few camps that took place in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota and Wyoming. 

Overall, the course involved more than 30 students, nine instructors, the field station director and administrative staff from South Dakota Mines and the Board of Regents for the State of South Dakota. “Having firsthand served as an instructor, for several of us it took up to 200 hours to deliver one online module and many more hours to complete the field phase of the hybrid course,” says Uzunlar. “Many would say, ‘Why do this if it clearly took a large budget to deliver?’ Simple. We did it for the profession which requires irreplaceable field experience and of course for our students. We felt we could make a small contribution by helping them finish their undergraduate degrees and get out of school and onto their careers.” 

Two weeks after the course, no students, staff or faculty associated with the camp showed COVID-19 symptoms or reported any positive test results. “While the challenges were numerous, we continue to be thankful for being able to get outdoors and study geology in the field this year, as well as get out of our homes. Hopefully all of our hybrid online and field course participants continue to stay healthy, happy and enthusiastic about the many benefits of field geology,” Uzunlar adds.  

The academic paper characterizing this experience is now being reviewed by the Journal of Geoscience Education, as well as two abstracts into the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting. Contributing faculty include, Jon Rotzien, Ryan Sincavage, Nuri Uzunlar and Yann Gavillot.





Mike Ray

Communications Manager        

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