UND Geology graduate students organize trip to expose undergraduates to the discipline

UND Geology graduate students organize trip to expose undergraduates to the discipline

A three-day geology-centered trip to western North Dakota exposed several University of North Dakota students to the region’s oil industry and natural formations. Above, fifth from the right, Marie Bergelin wears a white tank top. Photo courtesy of Marie Bergelin.

Marie Bergelin wanted students to come to her office: the great outdoors.

“One of the things about being a geologist is that our office is outside most of the time, we get to go out and do field work,” said the Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Dakota’s Geology and Geological Engineering Department.

So, Bergelin, together with two peers, set out to organize a field trip to introduce undergraduate students to the world of geology.

The idea also stemmed from a troubling decline in the number of students keen on studying Earth’s physical shell and the processes that shape it. The fall in enrollment figures plagues many geoscience departments across the nation, Bergelin said.

With a hands-on experience, she hoped to spark an interest in the discipline that she herself once thought to be dull, but later found riveting.

The three-day tour that Bergelin led in mid-September whisked seven students deep into North Dakota’s oil territory as well as Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most of the students were freshmen and sophomores; several of them were enrolled in UND’s introductory geology course.

“Hopefully, by showing the students what geology is all about, they’ll get excited about it and choose it as their major,” Bergelin said of the outcome she hoped to achieve with the trip.

North Dakota up close

For Sarah Budziszewski, a second-year student in composite science education from Karlstad, Minn., the outing – which initially lured her with its promise of camping – presented a trove of new information.

“We did tour a lot of oil production facilities in western North Dakota,” said Budziszewski. “And I didn’t know anything about how they work. I learned a lot about subjects that I had no idea about.”

A stop at Neset Consulting in Tioga, N.D., offered a Bakken geology lesson by owner Kathy Neset. Photo courtesy of Marie Bergelin.

The three-day tour began with a four-hour drive to Tioga, N.D., where the group of 10 visited Neset Consulting. That’s where North Dakota State Board of Higher Education member Kathy Neset, the company’s owner and president, gave the students an overview of the Bakken’s geology.

Then the group was off to a Continental Resources oil rig and production site for a first-hand glimpse of the multi-billion dollar industry.

The other major component of the tour took place in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park’s northern unit served as the group’s camping site for two nights before the members made a last-day foray into the southern portion.

In the park, which is close to North Dakota’s repository of dinosaur relics near Dickinson, N.D., the students hunted for fossils. Because the rocks and boulders that make up the region are soft clay, they cleave easily – without the need of special tools – sometimes to expose remnants of bygone eons.

“We did find some really cool fossilized leaves,” said Bergelin. “They were roughly 60 million years old. The students got very excited about that.”

The students, most of them freshmen and sophomores, also toured an oil extraction and production facility. Photo courtesy of Marie Bergelin.

Another thrilling moment had little to do with geological formations. It involved the park’s wildlife.

Saturday afternoon, the students hiked on a trail – until their single file came to a stop. At first, Budziszewski didn’t know why she was asked to keep quiet, turn around and climb up a knoll, which was still muddy and slippery from recent rains.

It turned out that two bison rested on the trail, blocking their path.

“That was exciting,” Budziszewski said.

Planning stage

As exciting as the trip was, its organization was quite a feat. To secure funds for it, Bergelin crafted a grant proposal to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Council within the state’s Industrial Commission.

A leaf imprint, about 60 million years old, preserved in layers of clay rocks. Photo courtesy of Marie Bergelin.

After three rounds of approvals, Bergelin received $5,300. The commission also helped arrange the tour.

“They have seen this trend of decreased interest,” Bergelin said. “So, they thought it was a really interesting project and wanted it to succeed. The commission helped by reaching out to a few people who helped us make this happen.”

Still, having received the grant in late August, Bergelin had only a few weeks to coordinate the trip with the University and market it to students, who needed to bring only a sleeping bag with them.

She aimed for 19 students; seven joined – still a good turnout, considering the short notice and the fact that the fall semester on campus teems with academic and social events.

Already planning a trip for next year, which the grant will cover, Bergelin hopes not only to attract more students to geology, but also to show what their “office” could be like if they decide to pursue a career in the field.

“When they’re out hiking or out in nature, or visiting new places, I want them to think of why Earth looks like it does,” Bergelin said. “Why do you have rivers or streams here?”  And, why is the Grand Canyon where it is?

Bergelin hopes students will ponder those kinds of questions instead of just looking at a landscape and saying, ‘Oh, it looks beautiful.’”