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Earth and Environmental Sciences Alumni Reunite for Field Camp in the Mountains

By Sarah Geegan

Since 1948, the University of Kentucky has operated a geology field camp in the Rocky Mountains. The field camp presents students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) with a unique opportunity to apply principles and ideas learned from the classroom in a real-world setting.

This summer EES will offer a similarly unique opportunity for its alumni: a reunion for past field camp participants taking place from July 4-6.

“This was a chance to get all of the UK geology field camp alumni who want to come back. Instructors and students can come back for our big bash out there,” EES professor David Moecher said.

As fellow EES professor Frank Ettensohn explained that the field camp experience unites UK geology students from the past and present.

“More than anything else, it’s something students can look back on," he said. It’s a thing that can bind different groups. Whether they’re from the 1950s or the 2000s, it’s pretty much the same experience. We have more technology now, but we still do the same things.”

Moecher added that the approach really hasn’t changed much.Since 1948, the University of Kentucky has operated a geology field camp in the Rocky Mountains.

“You go out and map the bedrock geology in large area and try to synthesize it,” he said.

The location of UK’s geology field camp has long offered students both a great learning opportunity and a chance for Kentucky natives to see rock formations unlike any located in the bluegrass.

“Many students have not been out of Kentucky, but this gets them in a whole different area," Ettensohn said. "They also see a different way of life and a different kind of people, and that’s really important. Most other camps are in more open areas. Our area is mountainous and pretty heavily forested, and the relief goes from almost 8,000 feet, up to 12,300 feet."

Moecher said that these qualities make UK’s field camp one of the most challenging in the country, both in terms of the terrain and the rigor of the work.

“For some of the students it will be the most challenging thing they’ve done, so it’s very memorable. It is a defining experience for our geology students,” he said.

The summer field camp gives students the chance to engage in work on new rock formations, but also creates an atmosphere for group work that prepares them for life beyond the classroom.

“There isn’t always a lot of group effort in the classroom but out there you have to map in groups,” Ettensohn said. “We emphasize cooperation and coordination because they’re going to work in groups at an oil company or anywhere else. We realize the importance of working together.”

The move toward group-focused work is one of the most important changes that has taken place at UK’s field camp over the past 65 years. Today’s students are also expected to produce maps with a greater understanding of regional context and more implementation of digital methods.

“We used to just map our area and that was it. Now we know you can’t just do geology in one area and expect it to explain everything, so we do our geology in a regional context and try to understand each formation as it relates to other formations,” Ettensohn explained.

Moecher said they also plan to use GPS units and digital elevation models instead of topographic maps.

"That’s what people do in industry and professionally," Moecher said. "Everybody uses geographic information systems software for all that spatial data.”

There have also been changes to the camp’s location and setting since it began in 1948. While the camp was once located in Gunnison National Forest, now participants in the field camp stay at Western State College of Colorado.

Ettensohn said his favorite memories are from the “tent camp” days prior to the move into Western State’s dormitories.

“I like the camping," he said. “I brought my family out there and my kids were running around. My daughter was 2 years old and she knew all the rock formations.”

Other faculty participants, such as fellow EES professor Bill Thomas, relish the opportunity to share experiences from trips to Colorado. Thomas' first attended UK’s field camp as an undergraduate geology major in 1954.

“It was a whole summer of tent camping in the Rocky Mountains, sleeping to the sounds of Cement Creek, climbing in the mountains every day, pursuing the intellectual stimulation of making a geologic map in the field, and enjoying the camaraderie of camp life," Thomas said. "What is not to like?”

The EES field camp reunion offers a special opportunity for alumni to reunite with the community in Gunnison, Colorado and further strengthen the bond between participants in the camp.

“Everybody out there knows us. We’re part of the community and everybody knows that UK is out there,” Ettensohn said.

For more information about the field camp reunion visit