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Talk to any Earth scientist and they’ll tell you field research is essential; it’s “the real world laboratory, if you want to understand the textbook, what the professors are saying,” notes alumni Lawrence H. (Larry) Davis (M.S. 1979), who recently completed his term as chair of the EES Alumni Advisory Board (AAB).
Nathan Niemi, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) and director of the University of Michigan’s Camp Davis Rocky Mountain Field Station, underscores how necessary it is for students to integrate firsthand knowledge of the Earth’s geology and atmosphere with their class work. “We teach students about the Earth in a very topically-oriented way on campus, we divide it up in silos and bins of knowledge. But you have to think in four dimensions—changes to the Earth are happening in space, over time,” he explains. “And that can be a hard thing for students to conceive of until they can see the spatial scale in the field. You can drive for hours in the same volcanic eruption in Yellowstone—and then they start to get the idea that, ‘this is extraordinary, this would’ve changed the planet when it erupted.’”
Field work develops crucial professional skills in ways the classroom can’t match, explains Niemi. “Geology is like looking at a car wreck and trying to figure out what happened. Learning to draw inferences from limited data, marshall a scientific argument, and defend the conclusion is a huge intellectual leap that mirrors what they’ll do in their careers.”
But the pandemic made it hard for researchers and students alike to get out into the field for several years. That’s why Trinity Pryor (B.S. ’22), who earned her degree a semester early in December, packed two field-based experiences, plus several weeks as an Earth Camp instructor, into her last undergraduate summer.
“It was my first time in the field since I’d started at the University of Michigan,” said Pryor of the field trip she and twenty other students took with Professor Niemi to Death Valley, Zion, and the Grand Canyon in May.
As part of the seminar course that preceded the field trip, each student researched one of the geologic sites the group would visit and prepared a talk to present on-site. Pryor and her partner chose the Cambrian Explosion. “It was amazing to be able to hike to and stand on top of these super famous points and formations, to see deep mountain canyons carved by rivers, and think about how they came to be,” she said.
“I gained a lot of new practical field knowledge, too, like moving and setting up camp every day and using a field notebook for diagrams and taking detailed notes. It was my first time ever needing a field notebook because everything else I’ve done has been in class, and it was a useful skill I could take with me to Camp Davis.”
There was a marked contrast between the field trip and Camp Davis, where she attended the June session for her capstone course, Earth 450-Ecosystem Science. “Camp Davis was intense. At camp you spend the entire month immersed in this experience with the same 23 people, in lecture, exploring the formations in the field, in the dining hall. And we’re all depending on this class to graduate. Everyone brought their own unique strengths, and we got to put all our brains together and help each other. You become a really tight knit group; we developed a great bond."
“This summer was really the first time I could get to know other EES students outside of class. I didn’t really know anyone in the department well,” noted Pryor, whose three years as an active member of the Black Student Union’s executive board, filling roles including mass communication chair, editor of the student life magazine, and peace officer, kept her busy and connected to the broader campus community. “One thing that was cool about knowing I was going to Camp Davis was when I met one of the few other black students I’d seen around the department in a mini course last fall, and she and I decided to go to the same Camp Davis session and room together. There are only a few other Black students in the department, and fewer Black women.”
Pryor echoes generations of EES students that have preceded her when she describes her transformative summer in the field. But many students have also faced financial barriers that were significant enough to prevent them from undertaking such trips. Though exponentially rewarding, field education can be expensive, time-consuming, and logistically complicated. To ensure that all undergraduate and graduate students have the chance to gain technical expertise that fits their goals, the department sponsors a variety of field experiences as well as maintaining an on-site Camp Davis course as a graduation requirement. One large U.S. trip, like the one Pryor took, is usually offered each year; an additional international field trip takes place every few years. Such a commitment comes with one very real challenge: to ensure opportunities are accessible to all students regardless of their financial situation. The department relies on donor support of the Earth & Environmental Science Strategic Fund to subsidize trips so that the cost to students for field work, even large trips, can remain low.
That’s one of the things that motivated Larry and Ronna Davis (A.B. 1973, A.M. School of Ed.’80), when considering how they might give back to the university. “It’s really a must to experience field work to be an Earth scientist, but students are doubly challenged,” noted Davis, senior advisor and chief scientist for MAP Energy, LLC., a Palo Alto-based energy development company. “If you’re out there for a summer you can’t take other jobs to make and save money; and if you don’t go it puts you at a disadvantage to other students.”
In early 2020, Davis co-led the ‘Geology of the Dead Sea’ field trip to Israel and Jordan with professor Adam Simon; the excursion turned out to be the last EES field trip before the pandemic restricted travel for the next two years. The trip impressed upon Davis how studying in the field intermixes historical and cultural experiences within the context of geological changes to the Earth. “Environmental science is global,” he explained. “We wanted to introduce not only the geology but also the cultural evolution, the archaeology, of the region.”
“We had the great honor of studying with a leading expert, Dr. Moti Stein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who brought perspective from a different educational system and approach,” he continued. “Students got to see what the actual reality in that part of the world is, not just what they see on the news. It’s part of what we are trying to teach liberal arts undergrads—to experience the world yourself, make your own judgments, develop critical thinking. It’s so much more than just the science; you learn interpersonal working skills, grow to understand different cultures and social environments, and learn how to travel.”
Ever the Earth scientist, Davis enthused, “And we saw some really spectacular and varied geology in contrast to what we have exposure to in the U.S. Now these students have this field experience to add to their ‘quiver’ of references to pull from.”
From the Ground Up
Davis’ longtime friends and graduate student classmates, Dr. Steven G. Henry (M.S. 1978, Ph.D. ’81) and Dr. Krystyna Swirydczuk (M.S. 1977, Ph.D. ’80), have each also served as chair of the AAB. For them, Camp Davis was one of the most enduring and fundamental parts of the U-M experience. The couple is deeply committed to ensuring that Camp Davis can continue to serve students and researchers for decades to come.
“Camp Davis was a pivotal experience. Getting way out of your normal lifestyle, traveling long distances to sites where you could think about the scale of the formations, see how the faults come together. The camaraderie, the collaboration, and access students have to faculty and researchers. Krys and I have great memories of Camp Davis,” mused Henry. “She was a TA for several summers. I learned how to map there, and went on to make maps for the rest of my career. I still have the first map I ever made at Camp Davis.”
Donor support for the Camp Davis Strategic Fund is vital to providing the scholarships and financial aid that make it possible for students to excel in field coursework. Niemi points out that there are also key infrastructure costs associated with maintaining an off-campus field station in the harsh conditions of the Rocky Mountains. The camp was established in 1929, and many of the buildings still in use are quite old. One pressing need is a new dining hall. “If they had a big snow and the dining hall collapsed, there’d be no camp,” said Henry simply, of his decision to kick start a fundraising campaign for the new Camp Davis dining hall.
“Steve and Krys have shown great leadership and amazing generosity. Ronna and I were inspired by their giving. If supporting Camp Davis was that important to them, we wanted to help in our own small way, too,” said Davis, who answered the call to support Camp Davis renovations despite never having attended.
Getting out(side) to get in
The Davis and Henry families have also supported Earth Camp, the Earth science pipeline program for Ypsilanti and Detroit area high school students. According to a 2016 National Science Foundation (NSF) study, geosciences are among the least diverse fields of science; in the top 100 national university departments, less than 4% of tenured or tenure track faculty identify as people of color. Earth Camp was established at U-M in 2015 to educate and excite a more diverse population of high school students, “about Earth and environmental sciences through a variety of hands-on experiences, outdoor activities, and through exposure to career opportunities in the Earth and environmental sciences.”
Earth Camp coordinator and EES outreach specialist Jenna Munson says the program's returns are impressive: 100% of Earth Camp participants have gone on to attend college, with around 95% majoring in STEM fields. Earth Camp now recruits from the university’s Wolverine Pathways program, where high school students benefit from an even wider range of wraparound support.
Before she was an Earth Camp instructor, Trinity Pryor was actually an Earth Camp participant. Beginning the summer after her sophomore year at Lee M. Thurston High School in Redford, a suburb of Detroit, she participated in Earth Camp for three years. Pryor had always loved science and thought she’d go to college to study chemical Engineering—but Earth Camp got her out into nature and hooked on environmental science. She went on to excel in an A.P. Environmental Science course her senior year and was quickly accepted at U-M.
In a fun twist, Pryor was also able to share some of her freshest field memories when she took her Earth Campers back to Wyoming in August to visit Yellowstone National Park and spend an afternoon at Camp Davis. For many students, Earth Camp is their first time traveling out of the state or flying on an airplane. For a lot of them it’s even their first chance to visit Northern Michigan, swim in one of the Great Lakes, and climb Sleeping Bear Dunes—all ecologically significant sites. This year, Earth Campers visited the U-M Biological Station, about an hour south of Mackinaw City, for the first time. “It was my first time ever at the Bio Station, too!” noted Pryor.
“It’s like a study abroad before they even get to college,” said Munson.
“I was giddy to be an instructor because I loved Earth Camp so much when I was in high school,” enthused Pryor. “It was a full circle moment, giving kids the experience that changed my whole outlook on college and what I wanted to get into. It was rewarding to be able to talk to my group of incoming juniors and seniors about what they wanted to do in college, what to expect from the application process, and to offer my help on essays just as my Earth Camp instructors did for me.”
Thanks to generous donor support, Earth Camp is free to students. “Earth Camp is so highly important on many levels. It’s a model that shows what we can do for young students to provide an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise and fundamentally change lives,” said Davis. “We can create a more informed electorate, the future leaders of our country and nation. I hope they become influencers and mentors to others. There’s a lot of bang for your buck in supporting it.”
Henry agrees, “With Earth Camp, we can move society forward. It’s that first step to getting more diverse groups of students outside, to broaden their horizons, develop new skill sets and proficiencies. It’s a great mission.”
“There is a whole world beyond the classroom,” notes Niemi. “To be able to help students participate in field experiences is not an insurmountable goal to accomplish, to help pave the way, take care of the logistics, get them there. Donor support helps us achieve that. It breaks down a barrier for students who previously saw this as an unattainable thing to do.”
Support Experiential Learning in Earth and Environmental Sciences
The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences provides a multitude of experiential learning opportunities for students. These include classes at Camp Davis, weekend course-related field trips during the semester, GeoClub-led excursions, and domestic and international field trips to places of geologic interest during mid-semester and summer breaks. It is clear that there is significant student demand and the department believes strongly in the value of field-based, experiential learning, especially when combined with exposing students to new cultures and new countries.
This year, in response to the dearth of field opportunities over the last few years due to COVID-19, several field trips are planned over the 2022-2023 academic year. Destinations for these trips include Brazil, South Africa, and Texas/New Mexico. Each trip will be led by an Earth faculty member and will accommodate one to two dozen undergraduate and graduate students.
Hosting three trips in a single year is record-breaking. These trips will deplete field excursion funds significantly, and EES has always prioritized a high level of department subsidy toward student costs. This subsidy enables students from all economic backgrounds to participate.
Contributions of all sizes from generous donors, alumni, and friends enable the department to continue with this practice–and every gift counts. In a 2019 crowdfunding campaign, 50 donors raised more than $10,000 for Earth Camp. And each year on Giving Blueday, a loyal group of over 100 Earth and Environmental Sciences supporters collectively contribute tens of thousands of dollars; their generosity not only puts the department in the top 10 on the Giving Blueday leaderboard but also helps to ensure that no student misses out on these important educational opportunities for lack of financial means. LSA's next Giving Blueday is Wednesday, March 15, 2023.