VIEW FROM ACADIA
This newsletter is likely the second mailing you have received from us in the past year. In the summer we also contacted you looking for assistance to set up a fund that would help students deal with the costs of attending field school in Cape Breton Island. The responses to our begging letter in August have been most interesting - and heartening too, because as a result we were able to subsidize by about one-third the cost of accommodation at the Gaelic College at St. Anns, the base for our senior field school. We thank those who were able to support the project - even with the short lead time before the late August start to field school, we noticed that none of the students indicated that they could not attend it this year because of the cost, and the number participating reached its highest level since the days when we shared the field school with St. F.X. University. We particularly thank those who were able to arrange matching funding from employers - it all helped the money go a little farther.
One of the comments we got was "I am so glad to see you still have a field school, with all the computer teaching you seem to do today." Let me assure you that we certainly continue to see the importance of practical experience in the field as a part of the process of geological education! It is maybe even more so in light of Acadia Advantage, the program that brought laptop computers to our fingertips. We offer two field schools - after two years of study we take students off for two weeks at the end of the winter term, to encounter rocks and structures in the local area and in the Antigonish area. Then at the end of summer we take students entering their final year to Cape Breton Island for the senior field school. Of course, during term time, we also have numerous field trips, class exercises in the field, and Fletcher Club events that often incorporate a trip to some famous localities.
Being involved in both the post-second year and pre-fourth year field schools, I am in the interesting position of observing how students are developing intellectually as they move through the program. In the junior field school many are very hesitant about everything - how to measure a strike and dip, how to pace, how to tackle the first page in the notebook, how to describe a rock, even what to wear (that one's easy to answer - when you are on the shores of Northumberland Strait in late April - everything you've got!) By the time they start the senior field school, only two terms of instruction later, they are keen to get out on the rocks, confident that they will find volcanic arcs, ancient subduction zones, desert or deep ocean environments. A day or two on the outcrops brings a realization that field work seems to be more about maneuvering one's way through the woods, locating oneself on the map, figuring out how to avoid that dangerous merging of contour lines, or finding the best place to cross the river than situating the volcanic centre or source of the conglomerates!
So how do we run a field school these days with computers? You may be surprised at the techniques we have incorporated. In the junior field school, much of the effort is still on locating outcrops (and oneself) and describing rocks. Developing observational skills is still fundamental to the whole process and cannot be missed. For exercises that cover small areas we still rely on "pace and compass" locating, but increasingly we use GPS receivers to locate ourselves. One interesting discovery is that based on the GPS locations, some of our coastlines are moving. We used to use a base-map drawn from an old aerial photograph for our exercises at Antigonish. Every year we noticed that the shape of the beach was different - some years the way-up structure is exposed, other years it is buried by sand. Gradually over the years it seemed we were encountering more outcrops at the base of the cliff - but it wasn't until we introduced GPS receivers for locating ourselves that we realized we were now mapping 10 m inland from the former upper edge of the beach! Regretfully, however, the use of GPS receivers means we have had to eliminate the "Least Gap Award" - the highly sought after prize for being the person to achieve the nearest closure of his/her traverse at McArras Brook.
Having the coordinates of maps available via GPS receivers, the obvious next step to move over to preparing the map in a graphical program on a computer. In the second year field school the students download their location data into a spreadsheet program, but from there on, they work on paper, developing a sense of how the map comes together as they see it before their eyes. Since all second-year students learn to use graphics programs in their geomorphology class, they are sometimes tempted to try to draw the map in CorelDraw. However, we have found that at the second-year level, this process merely adds busy work, time and frustration into the field school, and we have resisted going too far down that path. At the senior field school, however, where each student works on a single large project, mapping a block of about 25 km2 of diverse topography and rock type, they have the time to apply their CorelDraw skills to mapping too. Thanks to a M.Sc. thesis by Martin Ethier a couple of years ago, we have access to a superb collection of remotely sensed data for the field school area (gravity anomaly and aeromagnetic maps, shaded relief maps, radar and space-borne images), a digital elevation model and topographic contour plots. The amount of data can be overwhelming - but isn't that how we live these days? One of the skills students learn is how to select what is useful and discard what is not.