Our trip out to Death Valley this past month was a success! We took 32 students from AP Environmental Science classes at Poly and STEM Academy in RUSD out to the desert for a 4-day, 3-night field experience. Our trip was led by Dr. Mary Droser, accompanied by Dr. Robyn Dahl of Western Washington University, who compiled the student field books. In addition, we had many other volunteers along on the trip vital to making the trip run smoothly.
After arriving in Death Valley on Thursday afternoon, we set up camp, ate a hot dog dinner and gave the students an overview of what lay in store for them. Our Thursday night ice breaker was a game called "Name on Back" during which each person had a name on their back and had to ask others yes or no questions to determine the name. The names varied from fictional characters, including animated characters, to historical people, musicians and artists. Once they correctly guessed the name they had, students (and the participating adults) could get a new name and start fresh. The night concluded with a roaring campfire to warm up around on the chilly night.
Friday morning kicked off the geological explorations within Death Valley. The students were split into two groups so half could go to the Mesquite Sand Dunes while the other half went off to Mosaic Canyon. At lunch, we all reconvened at Stovepipe Wells to grab a bite and swap groups. At the Mesquite Sand Dunes got a look at sedimentary structures such as mud cracks and ripples, thinking about how those might have formed and had a chance to think about desert ecology by looking for evidence of wildlife such as trackways in the sand. At Mosaic Canyon, leaders were placed at points of interest along the canyon to direct attention to a few different features the canyon shows. Students got a chance to look at alluvial fan deposits, the formation of breccia from flash flood events, unconformities, and recumbent folds. After spending the day out in the field, students got a chance to shower at Furnace Creek before coming back to a chili & rice dinner followed by s'mores around the campfire.
Saturday was jam packed with activities. We were joined by a certified scientific illustrator, a staff geologist working with an environmental consulting company, and a few geoscience graduate students from UCR. The overcast day started off at Golden Canyon where students were allowed to decided whether they wanted to go to Red Cathedral to work with Marly Beyer, the scientific illustrator, or if they wanted to go on a longer hike up to Zabriskie Point. The hike from Golden Canyon showed different sedimentary layers to suggest changing depositional environments and differences in how the rocks weather based on their composition. Students on the hike to Red Cathedral got tips from Marly on artistry in the field and how to capture what they are observing. Once everyone was back at our meeting point at Golden Canyon, we went out to Badwater Basin and Devil's Golf Course where student leaders explained differences in how water can shape the desert. Though both localities are salt pans into which minerals are deposited, interaction with water creates two rather different, yet equally stunning landscapes. Our field explorations for the day ended at Harmony Borax Works where students got a chance to see how borax was mined and got a glimpse of some history of Death Valley. The night was capped off by geology desert bingo, skits prepared in 15 minutes using an assortment items from a bag each group was given, and "Voice of the Desert" performances including a showcase of artwork and poems.
Overnight rains spelled out a muddy Sunday morning packing up camp. Though a few tents got a bit damp, spirits were high in camp as the rain subsided by morning and the students helped to pack everything together. With a quick stop in Emigrant Pass, students got a chance to search for trilobite fossils before continuing on back to Riverside.