Earth sciences students learn real-world lessons in outdoor classroom

Instructor in Earth Sciences Patrick Applegate at the entrance of Tytoona Cave

Patrick Applegate, instructor in earth sciences at Penn State DuBois, is pictured at the entrance of Tytoona Cave just before leading students inside to examine the cave's geological history.

Credit: Penn State

Some students enrolled in the earth sciences bachelor degree program at Penn State DuBois recently had the chance to see much of their classroom learning brought to life. During a weekend fieldtrip to Pennsylvania's Valley Ridge Region, Instructor in Earth Sciences Patrick Applegate introduced students to real-world examples of geological phenomena that tell the story of Earth's history.

The students participated in the trip as part of their class on geomorphology, which is a science devoted to learning the history of the planet by studying areas on, or close to, the surface.

"The surface of the Earth is different here than in other areas," Applegate said of the Valley and Ridge Region of central Pennsylvania. "What we see here tells us a lot about the geological history and what happened to form these landscapes here in Pennsylvania." The class climbed to ridgetops to observe valleys below, and even explored a cave between Tyrone and Altoona, appropriately referred to as Tytoona Cave.

"We observed the sandstone on the ridges and the limestone in the cave, how caves are formed, and the relationship between them," Applegate noted. "Caves form because at one time the ground water table was higher, occupying the level where the cave is now. Ground water is acidic, and limestone is dissolved by acidic water."

Students majoring in earth sciences train for careers in environmental conservation, energy resources, wildlife conservation, environmental consulting and more. The students on this trip agreed that getting an up-close look at geologically interesting landscapes and exploring how they were formed helps them to better understand their classroom lessons, and will help them to better apply their education to a career.

Brian Everett, a senior in earth sciences from York, Pennsylvania, is looking to begin a career in environmental consulting with the oil and gas industry following graduation. He said, "Getting the real-world experience adds so many benefits to our education. Getting to go out and see this stuff puts things you learn in class in perspective. It puts you ahead of the curve from other programs."

Mandy Marconi, of St. Marys, is a graduate of the wildlife technology program at Penn State DuBois, and is currently working full-time as an environmental educator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. She returned to further her education in earth sciences and is now a senior in that program.

She said, "When you get out in the field it makes things clear that maybe weren't as clear in the classroom. You can look at a picture on a piece of paper, but when you get out in the field, you can see it, touch it and really work with it." "Being able to see these formations and the cave is really awesome," agreed Nicky Lantz of Clearfield, a junior in earth sciences who hopes to work in waterways conservation.

"I'm more of a hands-on learner, and to be in the field is nice. You can really see what you're studying." Through field observation the students have the opportunity to learn more about their home state, and the chance to develop a deeper appreciation for what is underneath. And it's that time out on the road and in the field that Applegate has used to bring his classroom lessons into sharp focus for his students.

He said, "Pennsylvania is a geologically interesting state, and this trip was about getting students experience in observing things that are difficult to observe in a classroom. I think it's really important in the earth sciences to observe things out in the field. You can learn a lot about this stuff from a textbook, but there is so much more you just have to go out and see."