The History of Keck Geology Consortium

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Preliminary ideas for the Consortium came from Reinhard “Bud” Wobus at Williams College. With the help of Russell Carpenter at the Williams Development Office and Sandra Glass at the W. M. Keck Foundation, the idea blossomed and became reality in 1987. Founding members of the Consortium were Amherst College, Beloit College, Carleton College, The College of Wooster, Colorado College, Franklin & Marshall College, Pomona College, Smith College, Whitman College, and Williams College. In 1989, Trinity University and Washington and Lee University joined the Consortium, increasing the geographic and geologic diversity of the group.

The initial goal of the Consortium was to support research and encourage faculty interaction at liberal arts colleges with small faculties. By pooling expertise and analytical equipment, the Consortium founders hoped to enhance the education of geoscience undergraduate students, and also demonstrate to a skeptical geological community that quality research is possible when undergraduate projects are carefully designed and implemented. Both goals have been well met, and the Consortium continues to be a leader in development of innovative educational programs.

Program Development

Student-Faculty Research Projects

From the beginning, the Consortium program focused on yearlong research experiences for rising seniors. The purpose of the program is simple: to provide students with a research experience that encompasses the entire problem-solving process. Students learn the overall problem, identify an individual part of the problem for their own project, gather and interpret data, and present results at a professional style symposium. Part of the symposium experience is submission of an expanded, four-page abstract for publication in the Symposium Proceedings. The experience of submitting an abstract gives the students a taste for the technical editing process, including incorporating editorial changes suggested by reviewers (in this case, faculty sponsors and project directors) as well as preparing a manuscript to meet specific formatting requirements.

Much of the work done by advanced students following their summer field experience is accomplished at the home institution under the guidance of an on-campus sponsor. The Consortium recognized from the beginning the importance of these sponsors in the overall quality of the final research results. Thus, a site-visit program for sponsors was developed. The Consortium provides funds for sponsors to travel to the field site, meet students and project faculty, and learn the overall research problem in order to enhance their understanding of the overall research problem and how their student’s work fits in the group effort.

In 1991, the Consortium, aided by the National Science Foundation, expanded the concept of learning through research to include younger students on introductory projects. Introductory Projects became a signature part of the Consortium program. Their goals were twofold: firstly, the projects give beginning students a taste of geoscience research, as well as sense of the challenge and enjoyment that comes from solving Earth Science problems; and secondly, the projects are aimed at improving the participation of students from ethnic and minority groups under-represented in the Earth sciences. Each year, at least 35% of participants in these projects are minority students. In recent years, 50% of participants on particular projects have come from under-represented groups. In these projects, students work in small teams to complete a small project in five weeks. These are intense weeks for students as they learn not only the research problem but also the dynamics of their particular group. Students improve their communication and cooperation skills as they gather and interpret data, and produce a short paper in a relatively short period of time. During the academic year, students continue their work together, via e-mail and the post, to produce an extended abstract and poster for presentation at the annual symposium.

Evolution of the Consortium Program

The first Consortium program was small: three projects involving ten faculty and twenty-four students. Since then, programs have been as large as eight projects with over seventy students. Over the years, a standard program has evolved four advanced projects and two introductory projects. Initially, students and faculty involved in the Consortium came only from the Consortium colleges, but participation has expanded to include representatives from over eighty-five other colleges and universities. This expansion in participation has come from number of different initiatives. Consortium faculty are frequently involved in research collaborations outside the twelve member schools. Faculty and students from other schools are involved in Consortium projects through these collaborations. Funding from the National Science Foundation has also spurred outreach. In addition to the minority participation program, NSF provided funds in 1999 to expand participation even more. Overall, more than one hundred students from other schools have worked on Consortium projects since 1991.

Domestic and International Projects

The core of the Consortium program is its focus on geologic study of the continental United States. The Bahamas Project in 1987, however, established a pattern of international research that continues to this day. Over its eighteen years, Consortium sponsored projects have taken students to Canada, Spain, Greece, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Australia, Iceland, Ireland, and Mongoliaa tradition that continues to thrive. Students report that the cultural experience of working and living overseas are as educational as the geoscience experience. The participation in such projects is integral to the mission of the Consortium program given the international nature of contemporary scientific collaboration.

In 2002, students traveled to Australia to study plate tectonics and Ireland to study short-term climate change. Other projects focused domestically on the last glacial/ interglacial transition in Ohio, geology of the Albion Mountains in Southern Idaho, geomorphology and watershed studies of the Cannon River and tributaries in Minnesota, and the Dry Union Formation in Howard, Colorado.

2003 was almost exclusively international, with the exception of a California project to study the Northern San Andreas Fault. Summer fieldwork took students to Cozumel, Mexico to examine tilefish mounds in the rock record; back to Greece to observe the evolution of Cycladic subduction zone rocks in the Aegean Sea; to Iceland to study volcanology and the geology of an abandoned oceanic rift in the Skagi area in North-central Iceland; and to Mongolia to delve into the geology of the Tavan Har area of the Gobi. The Mongolia project highlighted a cooperative effort with the Mongolian University of Science and Technology and the participation of MUST faculty members, B. Bayanmonh and A. Bayasgalan. Another research group returned to Ireland to continue work of the previous summer in seeking to reconstruct a detailed record of Holocene climate variability from carbonate lake sediments in Western Ireland.

Students in 2004 were able to return to both Iceland and Mongolia to continue the work and collaborations established during the prior project year. They also investigated the Canyonlands area of Southern Utah and the Finger Lakes region in New York State.

In 2005, programs will again feature a variety of geologic challenges and locales, focusing on the western hemisphere. International projects will take a small group of students to the Western Canadian Arctic and a full-sized project to the Dominican Republic to investigate various elements of climate change. Domestic projects will investigate the area around the Tobacco Root range in SW Montana, issues in Holocene and contemporary climate change in the Finger Lakes, and a variety of problems in Precambrian Minnesotan geology. (Additional details about recent project years can be found on the 2005 Projects page)

Workshops and Symposium

A professional style symposium, held in April each year, has been a critical part of the Consortium program from the very beginning. The symposium serves a number of purposes. For the students, it is an opportunity to present research results in an environment that emphasizes the importance of communication and builds self-confidence. Students share results of their work with other students, faculty, and professional geoscientists in poster sessions or talks. This experience challenges the students to present information in a clear and concise fashion, sharpening their skills in communication. The consortium publishes the proceedings and also maintains a web site devoted to the symposium. For the faculty, the symposium is an opportunity to interact and share information with each other and industry geoscientists, stimulating the development of new collaborations and innovative programs. The Consortium derives its sense of identity and purpose at the symposium.

Workshops were introduced into the program in 1989 and accomplish different purposes. Workshops related to advanced projects allow students, project faculty, and sponsors to gather at midyear and reconnect as a group. Students obtain more data, share the preliminary results of their research with each other, and discuss their interpretations in context of the overarching research questions. Other workshops support the exchange of information and ideas among faculty and students. These occur either during the academic year or summer and frequently involve collaboration with scientists outside the consortium. Funding constraints have restricted the number of workshops sponsored by the Consortium in recent years. In 2001, a workshop was one co-sponsored with the Soil Science Society of America and U.S. Geological Survey Soils and the Undergraduate Geology Curriculum. This workshop exemplifies the level of collaboration typical of recent Consortium programs. It included visits to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and the USDA Agricultural Research Service North Appalachian Experimental Watershed at Coshocton, Ohio.

Past Directors of the Keck Geology Consortium

Robert J. Varga (Pomona College) 2010-present
Andrew de Wet (Franklin & Marshall College) 2007-2010
Lori Bettison-Varga (The College of Wooster) 2004-2007
Beth Palmer (Carleton College) 2000-2004
Catherine Manduca (Carleton College) 1994-2000
Hank Woodard (Beloit College) 1991-1998
William Fox (Williams College) 1987-1998