With no active volcanos in West Texas to show her geology students, Dr. Heather Lehto decided to take them to the great white north.
An assistant professor of geosciences, Lehto offered interested students a trip to the Cascade Mountains in Washington this fall in conjunction with the school-sponsored trip to the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) annual meeting in Seattle. Twelve students, half from the GSA group and half from Lehto’s volcanology class, signed up for the chance to see the Cascades Volcano Observatory, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, which famously erupted in 1980.
“We were mainly looking at the effects of the Mount St. Helens eruption and what comes out of a volcano when it erupts,” Lehto said. “We hiked through a lava tube to look at the features like stalactites and levies that are formed. We had read about lava tube features in class, so the students got to see that first-hand.”
“We also stopped at a couple of the visitor’s centers,” she added. “The Mount St. Helens centers are great because they have collected a lot of the historical documents and photos from the time of the eruption. It gives you a better idea of all the devastation.”
While the primary reason for the trip was to expose the students to features of volcanology unavailable close to home, there were also some important secondary benefits.
“A lot of the students are at the point where they are thinking about internships, jobs and what they are going to do in the future,” Lehto said. “One of my main research activities is volcano monitoring, so having connections with the volcano observatory meant that I could give the students a glimpse of what it’s actually like to be a professional in that area.”
“It was one of the best field trips I’ve ever been on,” said Kara Naegeli, a junior from Cedar Park, “because 100 percent of it was real-world applications. Especially talking to the scientists at the volcano observatory, it showed me the types of opportunities I could have in that field and how I can apply what I’ve learned in class. You always hear about Mount St. Helens, but it was really cool to see it and learn scientifically how it affected the area.”
The group also got to explore the downed trees that still litter the banks of Spirit Lake north of Mount St. Helens and hike on Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Cascade Mountains and also an active volcano.
“From our other class field trips,” said Hadlie Green, a senior from Monahans, “we know the geology of West Texas and the Big Bend pretty well. But this trip was all brand new. I’m in the volcanology class, so I understood some of it. But the fact that I got to go out and experience something I’d never seen before was amazing. Learning in the field and seeing things first-hand gives you a whole different perspective.”
“I’m not in the volcanology class,” Naegeli added, “so I didn’t have the background that some of the other students did. So the whole time, I was constantly learning new things and understanding what the others had been learning.”
There was also a snowball fight on Mount Rainier, sightings of deer and a coyote, and even some fun with the birds.
“I was sitting and eating some Pringles,” Lehto said. “All of a sudden, there was a bird in my hand trying to eat my Pringles. I was like, ‘I’m having a Disney princess moment.’ I couldn’t be mad because it was so cute.”
Not surprisingly, the entire group considers the trip a rousing success.
“I really had a great time,” Lehto said, “because the students were really interested in what was happening. It wasn’t just a fun hike in the mountains; they were really thinking and learning along the way. This group was really fantastic.”
“I knew we would get to do geology class field trips,” Naegeli said. “But I never thought I’d get to go out of state. It was really cool to be able to travel that far away and have that experience.”
“It was on one of my first class field trips that I figured out that I really love geology,” Green said. “But never in a million years would I have imagined being able to go on a trip like this one. It was pretty awesome.”