WWU’s Geology Department Working Towards an Inclusive, Accessible Alternative to Field Camp

A galvanizing rite of passage for students seeking a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Geology at Western Washington University has always been Field Camp, a capstone experience of five to six weeks spent entirely in tents – mapping, sampling, categorizing rocks and interpreting the landscape across a variety of terrain throughout the West, from 11,000 feet up in the Sierras to the dry basins of Nevada.

“Field camp is an incredibly important experience for students,” said Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Geology Robyn Dahl. “It takes so much of what they have spent four years learning and compresses it into this incredibly immersive, focused challenge. Many students view it as a type of boot camp that, when completed, has prepared them for their next step, whether that is move on to graduate school, or to a career.”

What Field Camp isn’t is accessible -- but thanks in part to the hard work of many faculty members in the department, combined with Dahl’s new three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the department is moving forward with a concept called Lab Camp as an alternative to the traditional Field Camp experience.

Students with physical limitations, those with small children or other family obligations, or who need summer jobs to pay for their education in the past have been unable to complete field camp, and while the option exists for these students to get a Bachelor’s of Arts in Geology instead of a BS, the degree can be a bit of a red flag for those applying to graduate school, said Dahl, as well as promoting the feeling, even if unsaid, that it is the “lesser” of the two options.

“Of course, this isn’t the case, but we don’t want anyone to leave Western feeling like they are any less of a geoscientist because of what degree they graduate with,” she said. “For many reasons, Field Camp is a challenge for some students that has nothing to do with the rigors of what is being asked of them academically. So we knew we had to rethink how Field Camp is offered, and this is where Lab Camp comes in.”

A big goal of this program is improve the department’s climate around inclusivity and ensure that all students feel at home in geology.

Students who pursue the Lab Camp option will spend their time in the laboratories of Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center working on geochemistry, remote sensing via satellite data and  LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and computer modeling projects.

“These are all critically important skills for geologists, and six weeks of intensive focus in these areas will be a huge benefit to them as they finish their coursework,” Dahl said. “It’s also important to note that not all geologists work in the field or in remote places.”

Just as importantly, it will provide a rigorous final test for the students, which Dahl said she hopes will give them the same feeling of accomplishment as the students who complete Field Camp.

“We want all of our students to have an opportunity to develop as a successful geoscientist, and to determine what types of research skills and environments they are best suited for and most comfortable in.,” she said. “It’s common for students from minoritized groups to feel isolated at field camp or even in our regular classes. A big goal of this program is improve the department’s climate around inclusivity and ensure that all students feel at home in geology.”

Over the course of this academic year, Dahl and her colleagues will design each of the modules of the Lab Camp curriculum, and while there is a chance the first cohort of Lab Camp could be in place by next summer, she said it was more likely to be ready to roll out the following year.

The NSF grant also allows for professional development for Lab Camp faculty.

Lab Camp will be offered in the summer as a cohort of up to 10 students, as opposed to the 50 that will progress through Field Camp in spring and summer; but when it is ready, Dahl said she hopes Lab Camp will be a valuable tool to help recruit the next generation of geoscientists to Western.

“My hope is that this can be a method of recruiting and retaining students who are not ‘typical’ geologists,” she said. “And working on a way so that they all feel like they leave Western with the skills and experience they need to succeed is a great place to start.”