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The world is their classroom

  By Blake Rasmussen '05  


A geology class at Cape Farewell, New Zealand, takes a break during a five-day geologic mapping project.

Assistant geology professor Rhawn Denniston was trying to explain to five students in an intro-level class how to determine the orientation of a rock bed. He wanted the students to be comfortable with the equipment before heading out to the field but was having a hard time conveying his ideas. That's when he started drawing on the carpet.

Using chalk, Denniston sketched out exposed bed lines and compass points on the classroom carpet in Norton Geology Center . The rudimen­tary "field" worked, and before long the students felt confident using the equipment on actual rock beds far from their classroom. For Denniston and the rest of the geology department, learn­ing their discipline is all about getting students out of the classroom and into the world, or barring that, drawing that world on the carpet in chalk.

Though Norton holds research lab equipment and its own rock and fossil museum, most everyone in the depart­ment says the best part about being a geologist is getting outside and doing hands-on work.

"There's a real commitment to hands-on experience," said Denniston. "You can't really do geology in the lab. It's out there."

"Out there" for Denniston, assis­tant professor Emily Walsh, associate professor Ben Greenstein, and Cornell's geology majors is pretty much anywhere. Geology has sent and accompanied students to locations as simple as local parks and as exotic as New Zealand and the Bahamas. For this small department, the world is their classroom.

"It's very important to get off campus," says Walsh, "even if it's just taking 100-level classes to one of the state parks."

Studying off campus allows Cornell's geologists—students and professors alike—to complete a wide variety of intriguing and relevant projects.

"Because the geology faculty are practicing geologists, we can bring to our classes fresh information and fresh enthusiasm," said Greenstein.

Greenstein's research interests lie primarily in marine geology and paleontology, which took him to Western Australia in 2003-04 and again in 2005 with funding from the Petroleum Research Fund to study modern and ancient coral reefs. The results have contributed to an assessment of the vulnerability of the reef system to projected global warming.

Denniston does much of his research on climate changes recorded in stalagmites and fossil coral formations, including work with archaeologists in Portugal that may link changes in climate to changes in the diets of Neanderthals.

Walsh calls herself a "hard-rock geologist." She studies metamorphic rocks, which give insight into phenomena such as the origin and development of mountain belts. She works chiefly in the mountain ranges of Norway.

But this worldly experience is expensive. Even simple field classes can cost thousands of dollars. However, the geology department is one of the most active departments on campus in raising money and applying for scientific grants to support the research of their students and professors.

Dustin Waite '06 estimates he's received around $2,000 in financial support for three separate geological studies from various sources, including the Hendriks Research Fund (named for Herb Hendriks '40, geology professor emeritus), the Cedar Valley Rock and Mineral Society, and the Petroleum Research Fund.

Denniston has been awarded $200,000 from agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Petroleum Research Fund, and the Iowa Science Foundation to study environmental change in Nepal, Portugal, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic. Greenstein was awarded two $50,000 grants during his sabbatical in Australia, allowing him to take four students with him over a two-year interval. Recently four students attended an annual geology meeting in Ohio, all expenses paid.

The department also has raised money to buy equipment and materials. Within the confines of Norton Geology Center, the department owns an alpha spectrometer (used to date corals and stalagmites), a computer lab with hardware dedicated for geological information systems, a rock-saw room, a geochemistry lab, as well as a collection of roughly 5,000 minerals, rocks, and fossils.

In many ways, the department is a reflection of its founder, William Harmon Norton, Class of 1875. Norton was a self-taught geologist, who, like Cornell's present geologists, learned outside the classroom. He was also financially generous to the department, as the department is to its students today. Thanks to Norton, Cornell has the oldest program in the state, and the only four-year program offered by a liberal arts college in Iowa. Moreover, the Geology Club dates to 1855 and continues to be active.

Geology professors emeritus such as Hendriks, Gene Hinman '52, and Paul Garvin sustained a strong department and today Denniston, Greenstein, and Walsh continue that tradition.


Cornell geology faculty (from left) Ben Greenstein, Emily Walsh, Paul Garvin (emeritus), and Rhawn Denniston travel worldwide with their students.

Top geologic locations

We asked Cornell's geology faculty to recommend geology resources for our readers. Not surprisingly, they chose geologic sites.

1. Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii
2. Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
3. San Andreas Fault, California
4. East African Rift
5. Franz Joseph Glacier, New Zealand
6. Grand Canyon, Arizona
7. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
8. Meteorite Crater, Arizona
9. Iceland
10. Nepal Himalaya
11. Shark Bay, Australia

 

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