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UND’s Gerla takes students back in time

Geology & Geological Engineering  professor makes textbooks come alive with experiential learning in Mojave Desert

Phil Gerla
With Joshua trees and the Kokoweef Peak in the background, Phil Gerla, UND associate professor of geology & geological engineering, explains geological structures and other aspects of the Mojave Desert to students Carlos Alba and Marie Bergelim. Gerla, who enjoys giving students experiences in the field, led a visit to the desert over Spring Break in March. Photo by Sidike Abudureyimu

A group of UND geology & geological engineering students went retro for Spring Break this year — as in pre Ice Age.

As part of a school sponsored expedition to the Mojave Desert led by Phil Gerla, the students discovered rare dinosaur tracks from the Jurassic times. It was a highlight of a trip that made textbooks come alive.

“I felt like I was in a time machine,” said Sidike Abudureyimu, a graduate student in geological engineering from Turpan, western China, who discovered the tracks in a slab of sandstone. “I traveled back millions of years ago, and it felt awesome.”

“I put my thumbs in the dinosaur footprints,” said Emma Tschann, a senior in environmental geoscience from Zumbrota, Minn. “Once we found the first set of prints, more were easier to find. It was great. I loved it. I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was little. Seeing footprints that aren’t in a museum and imagining the conditions back then was pretty cool.”

The tracks were from Coelurosaurs, an unusual species of dinosaur from the Jurassic Era, said Phil Gerla, associate professor of geology and geological engineering, who led the trip. He added that they were between two and three feet tall and about the size of a small ostrich.

Mojave Desert Trip 2018
UND geology & geological engineering students take time for a group photo atop the summit of the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert. The students are (left to right) Sidike Abudureyimu, Coby Kison, Carlos Alba, Marie Bergelin, Danielle Zinsmaster, Emma Tschann, Phil Gerla, and Grace Devault. Image courtesy of Emma Tschann

Field experience

Gerla likes giving students experience in the field.

“Seeing the geological relationships in their natural environment helps us comprehend the history of the Earth,” Gerla said. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Each little piece is part of the full picture. That’s exciting for me.”

Phil Gerla
Phil Gerla

Gerla gave students maps and missions for each geologic feature they explored. All seven students, mostly geology and geological engineering majors, researched and shared information on an area they visited.

“It was like walking into the pages of a textbook,” said Tschann. “I was familiar with how to calculate strike and dip of formations by reading about it in textbooks, but had no idea of how those formations look in real life. It was worth all the hard work.”

“I researched the Hoover Dam and how it was built from an engineering perspective,” said Abudureyimu. “My work combined geology and engineering, and I learned a lot.”

Gerla and the students kayaked on Lake Havasu, Arizona, soaked in hot springs, mapped geology, explored carbonatite dikes in the Mescal Mountain Range, sought fossils in the Marble Mountains, hiked the Cima Volcanic Field, climbed the Kelso Sand Dunes and more.

“We talked about how sand dunes form,” said Abudureyimu. “With a 500-foot elevation gain, they’re not easy to climb. You take one step forward and slide half a step back.”

“And when you jump off the top of a sand dune, you hear a booming sound,” said Tschann. “That’s the sound of sand compacting quickly. They’re so soft you can’t get hurt.”

Mojave Desert Trip 2018
UND studentsCoby Kison (left) and Carlos Alba navigate kayaks through one of the many water-filled caves in the Mojave Desert. Image courtesy of  Emma Tschann

Connecting the dots

“The trip connected the dots between the textbook and the field,” said Abudureyimu. “Dr. Gerla did a great job explaining the geological structures.”

Abudureyimu especially enjoyed visiting Ringbolt Hot Springs.

“You follow the stream to the hot springs and see different formations,” he said. “We hiked three miles, had to wade through water and climb a steep ladder that was slippery with algae to get there. It’s nestled in a canyon.”

It was worth it.

“It was so hot,” said Abudureyimu, who did research on geothermal energy. “We jumped quickly through the hottest pool, which was about 111 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Tschann loved kayaking on Lake Havasu.

“We were able to see against the cliffs where rock masses had fractured, slipped, and formed little caves just large enough to paddle through,” she said, noting that Parker Dam creates Lake Havasu, which provides water for Phoenix, Tucson, and most of southern California.

“The six pipes look like giant straws, each 10 feet in diameter,” she said. “Six million people depend on that water. We often don’t think about how much water a city needs.”

“This was the experience of a lifetime,” said Abudureyimu. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Gerla for providing it.”