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G&EnE Revives the Geology Field Course

The World as Classroom

Geologist usually think in terms of millions of years, but 2019 marked a special milestone for the U.S. Military Academy: EV388A: Physical Geology reached 50 years of instruction. The inaugural Physical Geology course was taught by Lieutenant Philip S. Justus in the Department of Earth, Space, and Graphic Sciences (now known as the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering or G&EnE). When established in 1969, this course included numerous field learning exercises and provided cadets an opportunity to learn about the world around them and how it was formed. Its lessons primarily emphasized learning to identify minerals and rocks and then applying this knowledge to analyze the significant geological processes that act on and within the Earth. Today, cadets learn plate tectonics, rock mechanics, structural geology, geologic mapping, ground and surface water analysis, geologic time, and elements of mining and petroleum engineering. In addition, field learning exercises illustrate how local geology influenced development and construction in the Hudson Valley, particularly around West Point.

As demand for EV388A grew, the Environmental Program faculty searched for innovative ways to address the increased enrollment as well as to enhance cadet learning. This ultimately led to the creation of EV399A, the Geology Field Course, in 1990. EV399A also fulfills the Academic Individual Advanced Development (AIAD) graduation requirement. The three-week course was originally designed so that the first week was spent at West Point and the remaining two weeks at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). The week at West Point focused on establishing the geologist’s toolkit for experiential learning. The two weeks in Colorado enabled a wide variety of hands-on geology experiences, which are difficult to replicate in the Northeast. Additionally, the course provided a platform for a joint learning environment, with USAFA and USMA instructors teaching the course to cadets from both academies. EV399A ran continuously from 1990 until 2006, when the course was placed on hold due to curriculum changes at USAFA and increasingly prohibitive travel costs.

Over the years, many of G&EnE’s returning faculty had participated in EV399A as cadets, including the current Environmental Science Curriculum Coordinator, Colonel Mindy Kimball ’96, and the Environmental Engineering Curriculum Coordinator, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Wallen ’96, who coincidentally participated in the same field course experience in 1994. The camaraderie and encouragement of lifelong learning were big factors in their desire to return to West Point as faculty. In 2019, Kimball and Wallen revived the course through innovative use of department funds, gift-funding from the Dean’s Office, and the Richard and Deborah Adams Academy Scholar Endowment. Twenty years earlier, Richard Adams ’67 and his wife, Deborah, endowed this fund to support the field geology experience for future cadets. Their endowment is dedicated to experiential learning opportunities that enhance cadet education and leadership development. Partnership with USAFA provided cross-academy faculty integration and logistics support. Further resource support was provided by Fort Carson, Colorado. These relationships enabled G&EnE to reboot the course for a limited number of cadets (the capacity for the course is a total of 20 cadets from both USMA and USAFA). Based upon available funds for summer 2019, eight USMA cadets (out of 27 applicants), two USMA faculty members, and one USAFA instructor participated in EV399A. Although no USAFA cadets participated in the course this past summer, cadets interacted with their USAFA counterparts while staying in that academy’s dorms. They also got to stay at a field site used by USAFA Civil Engineering cadets and saw their technical lab facilities. The interactions with USAFA and the support shown by its faculty and staff enabled a successful EV399A rebirth, which demonstrated to the cadets the synergy that occurs across the joint community.

While participating in the Geology Field Course, cadets investigated the geological processes that shaped numerous western landscapes: Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, Seven Falls, Dinosaur Ridge, Browns Canyon, Florissant Fossil Beds, and the Rocky Mountains. “A textbook can’t do this,” said Environmental Engineering major Cadet Matthew Marino ’21. “We are applying what we learned out here and it’s pretty incredible.” Cadets met veterans from the Army and the Marine Corps who now work in mining and petroleum engineering at the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, as well as at the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. At each site throughout the AIAD, cadets facilitated peer discussions about geology and its billions-of-years-long processes. Cadet Spencer Myers ’21 appreciated these “unique opportunities to go and see real-world examples of many processes that shaped the Earth.” Cadet Joseph Chellis ’22 took a few moments of solitude at Rocky Mountain National Park to sketch the many mountain peaks in his field notebook. He believes that “the skills of making observations in the natural world and reasoning through them are useful ones for an Army officer.”

EV399A also provided leadership growth and development for cadets outside the traditional classroom. Cadets assumed leadership roles ranging from Cadet in Charge (CIC) to supply officer, medic, and historian. The small group environment enabled cadets to practice leading their peers, with Marino, the CIC, doing a superb job of setting the example coordinating responsibilities and schedules throughout the AIAD. Cadet Alley Rose ’21 said she appreciated interacting with other cadets, airmen, and even naval and ROTC cadets. “Being able to build diverse relationships will help me in my personal development for years after the Academy,” Rose said. While in Colorado, the USMA cadets also grew from interactions with students from Eastern Michigan University (EMU), the University of Wyoming, Colorado School of Mines, and USAFA. For example, following the peer discussion from Cadet Sarah Martin ’21 at Garden of the Gods, the cadets met with 10 students from EMU to conduct a joint geological mapping exercise. The students were led by Dr. Chris Gellasch, a former USMA faculty member who taught EV388A and EV399A from 2001 to 2004. The EMU students excelled at identifying specific rock layers in the stratigraphic column, and the cadets excelled at using the geologic compass to map the contacts. Together, their experience was strengthened through collaboration and sharing. The cadets realized the benefits they gained from WPAOG funding when they learned that the EMU students paid between $3,500 to $5,000 out of pocket to go on their field courses.

The EV399A field experience had an immediate impact on cadets, allowing them to take advantage of several opportunities during the academic year, such as adding an academic minor, taking on greater leadership roles in the Corps of Cadets, or facilitating a semester abroad while being a STEM major. Cadet Jerry Cable ’22, one of the non-Environmental Engineering majors who completed the AIAD (Operations Research), credits this experience as “an amazingly enriching event, both academically and personally” and plans to use it as the groundwork to be competitive for graduate-level scholarships. Cadet Maddie Allen ’22 did not allow the element of grandeur to be forgotten when she remarked, “Honestly, learning about things in class and then going out and being able to see them, touch them, and experience them, this opens up a whole new way to learn about things and to understand Colorado’s beauty, and then that leads to how beautiful this Earth is.”

Printed in West Point Magazine, Winter 2020, all rights reserved. 
Author COL Mindy Kimball '96 and LTC Ben Wallen '96 Guest Writers

At the writing of this article COL Mindy Kimball ’96 is an Academy Professor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Engineering, where she teaches courses in Environmental Science and Geology. She holds a Master of Science in Geology from California State University East Bay and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Sustainability from Arizona State University. She currently serves as the Curriculum Coordinator for the Environmental Science major.

LTC Ben Wallen ’96 is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Engineering, where he teaches courses in Environmental Engineering. He holds a Master of Science in Geological Engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla, a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Colorado School of Mines. He currently serves as the Curriculum Coordinator for the Environmental Engineering major.


SUPPORT -West Point Association of Graduates seeks private funding for additional developmental programs that go beyond the core elements. These programs enable cadets to achieve their highest potential.

WPAOG Funding Supports Cadets with:
hands on out-of-classroom experiences
semester abroad opportunities
club & athletic team endowments
renovation & improvements to West Point
academic centers for cadets, the Army, & the nation

Such opportunities make a West Point education like no other, and they are made possible through gifts from graduates, parents, corporations, foundations, and other friends of West Point.  GIVE NOW


SHARE - If you have your own special memories of learning Physical Geology or attending the Geology Field Course at West Point, G&EnE would love to hear from you to capture your story. Please contact the authors at Mindy.Kimball@WestPoint.edu or Benjamin.Wallen@WestPoint.edu to add your very well-rounded cobble of history to the rock layers that tell the story of Physical Geology at West Point.