Rock your world

Making the university grounds into a hands-on teaching map of Washington’s geology

“We’re walking up Hood Canal right now,” says Ken Clark.

He’s an instructor in the geology department; I’m a visitor getting a geology lesson. Like giant creatures from another planet, we tramp across an imaginary map of the state of Washington, superimposed on the UPS campus. He points out where the Olympic Mountains would be (from about the president’s house to Thompson Hall).

Stopping at various points in Alcorn Arboretum and along a planting strip in the parking lot, he points out what to the uninformed observer might seem like random protrusions of rocks of different colors and types. In one place, a piece of pink-and-white sandstone lies above gray, five-sided rocks. In another, the same sandstone is on top of green shale. In a third, the sandstone and shale are tipped upward. But the groupings are not accidental. Clark set them there to help students understand basic geology concepts and show how scientists use clues to figure out the way geologic features were formed.

Clark teaches a freshman-level course in geology, and he’s also the department technician, which makes him equal parts curator, librarian, inventory manager, lab tech, and handyman. He keeps track of the department’s approximately 10,000 maps and 3,000 rock samples used in classes, prepares and catalogs thousands of “thin sections” of rocks onto glass slides for examination under microscopes, and repairs compasses and instruments used in field exercises. Combining his practical talents with his knowledge of local geology, Clark came up with a project that would help students understand how scientists, who only get to observe rocks in the field when they are exposed above ground, figure out what lies miles beneath our feet and how those formations got there.

The rock “outcrops” Clark is building all over campus, which look decorative or natural to a passerby, demonstrate formations deposited 15 to 90 million years ago. The type of rocks (such as sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic), the order that they’re layered on top of each other, and whether they’ve been turned on their side or even upside down, tell scientists much about the history of the planet. Clark’s specialty is the 50-million-year-old southern part of the Olympics, where “pillows” (rounded rocks made underwater) are found next to five- or six-sided “columns” (rocks formed as hot molten material was pushed up out of the ground).

Students use the campus outcrops to practice identification and to look for evidence of faults and igneous intrusions. Upper-level students notice details, such as impressions left by rippling water or glaciers, and other clues that might indicate the rocks were once in a shallow lake bed, or buried deep under the ocean, or heaved upward over millions of years.

Taken together, the 40 or so displays represent a microcosm of Washington’s geology. Clark collected specimens from all over the state and placed the outcrops to show formations typical of different areas. The outcrops correlating to the Olympic Peninsula indicate more intense folding than outcrops placed near the eastern parts of campus, representing the geologically more stable Palouse.

Clark says he wanted something better than slides or pictures in books to help geology students grasp the concepts they learned in the classroom. “And this is a timesaver. Now we don’t have to take all day on a field trip. We can just walk out here and they can see what I’m talking about.”

In planning the outcrops, Clark worked with campus grounds-keepers to choose places that wouldn’t be conspicuous or interfere with campus maintenance. For the prototype outcrop, he dug the rocks into the ground on a slope, but someone stepped on the protruding rocks and knocked them down. Now he’s setting them in concrete, buried unobtrusively under dirt. With about a quarter of the outcrops in place, Clark estimates he’s used more than 4 tons of rock and concrete so far.

This idea has been done before at other universities but not to this extent. Puget Sound’s outcrop project is much larger and more comprehensive than any that Clark knows about. When it’s finished, he plans to submit a paper to the Journal of Geoscience Education. And students will get a laboratory where they can practice field geology without leaving the campus.

— Ivey Slowosky