Initial Publication Date: January 27, 2020

40 Years of Building Networks, Knowledge, and Skills Through Friendly Competition: The Tennessee Geoconclave

ERIK HAROLDSON ( is an assistant professor of geology in the Department of Geosciences at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. JEANNETTE WOLAK ( is an associate professor of geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, TN. ANGELA VAN BOENING ( is a lecturer of geology in the Department of Agriculture, Geosciences and Natural Resources at the University of Tennessee, Martin in Martin, TN. AUDREY PATTAT ( is a geology lab instructor in the Department of Agriculture, Geosciences and Natural Resources at the University of Tennessee, Martin in Martin, TN.

Competition can push us all to a higher level. The Tennessee State Parks Geological Conclave (referred to as "Geoconclave" or just "Conclave"), is an intercollegiate geology competition, hosted by various academic institutions located within Tennessee and surrounding states. The formal event features academic and non-academic events, as well as a final Rock Bowl (trivia tournament), with separate champions declared for the Rock Bowl and an overall champion. Each institution fields a team of undergraduate students, with more senior students typically competing in the individual academic events and forming a four-person Rock Bowl squad, while the non-academic events feature a mixture of students from all ranges of the academic spectrum (freshman to super-senior). The events take place in one day; however, the Geoconclave is commonly spread across three days, with teams arriving on Friday, competing on Saturday, and then departing on Sunday. In some years, an informal field trip is offered on Friday by the hosting institution, visiting accessible outcrops in the region. Throughout the event students are encouraged to build team skills by working with their department peers, and to grow their academic and professional networks and build camaraderie amongst their fellow geoscientists from other institutions. Further networking is afforded by a visit from local and regional professional society representatives. Geoconclave has proven a great place for recruitment of potential graduate students as well as a place for academics to meet and build collaborative relationships.

Four Decades of Learning, Networking

Geoconclave has been hosted annually for 40 years and was founded by Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, the University of Tennessee at Martin, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The schools take turns hosting (organizing) the annual event logistics, while a group of four or five individuals from multiple institutions act as officers of the event. Over the years a number of other regional institutions have taken part in the event, at times taking a turn as host. Some of the institutions include: Appalachian State University, Austin Peay State University, Murray State University, Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. When first founded, the event included a Friday afternoon field trip followed by camping and competition at Fall Creek Falls State Park in central Tennessee. In addition to academic events, non-academic events in the early years encouraged teamwork and outdoor sportsmanship. For example, students participated in stone-skipping competitions, a canoe tug-of-war, and geode golf on a customized geode golf course.

Many of the founding elements remain intact; however recent years have seen a number of changes. For instance, the event is held early in the fall semester rather than late in the spring semester. Faculty participants note that senior level students are more commonly enthusiastic to participate at the beginning of an academic year, whereas in the spring, many have already moved into thinking about their future plans (grad school, industry jobs, etc.). Importantly, the fall event is planned to not overlap with the conferences held by the Geological Society of America or American Geophysical Union.

From Academic Events ...

The competition is broken into academic and non-academic events, with greater scoring weight given to the academic. The more intense academic events take place in the morning, and the non-academic ones offer a more relaxed atmosphere in the afternoon. A break then allows some further unwinding prior to dinner and the culminating evening Rock Bowl quiz event. Undoubtedly, opinions on the best way to organize these events have changed over the 40-year history of Geoconclave. Here we offer opinions of the more recent, as these are likely the most relevant to persons wanting to start a similar event elsewhere.

Typically, five to six academic events are featured in a given year. Events such as Mineral Identification, Rock Identification, and Fossil Identification have endured since the original charter years, while other events have evolved through time. For instance, technological advances in the 1990s allowed addition of a Geocaching event using handheld GPS units while, most recently, a Hydrogeology and Environmental event was created to support departmental shifts to Earth and environmental sciences. Commonly, an individual faculty member will host a particular event, providing all the necessary equipment in order for the event to take place.

Mineral Identification offers the chance for students to test their skill at not only identifying minerals, but also for mineral formulas and identifying characteristics or perhaps even industrial uses. The event may be run more like a traditional mineralogy lab exam, in which students are given a set amount of time to view each sample or are simply allowed a set amount of time to peruse the prescribed minerals at will. A general understanding would be that the event would test a student who has taken introductory as well as mineralogy coursework.

The state of Tennessee and surrounding region exist over rocks of a Paleozoic carbonate platform. Many of the departments, at least historically, have had a strong invertebrate paleontological curriculum with courses in historical geology, paleontology, and paleobiology. For this reason, the Fossil Identification event is prone to feature the most academic rigor. It is reasonable that a Geoconclave hosted in another part of the globe would use higher standards on another event.

Rock Identification is perhaps the academic event which encompasses the most sub-disciplines directly. For this reason, the difficulty for this event is relatively low, and a student might prove to do quite well having only taken an introductory course such as physical geology or historical geology. Students are asked to identify a rock type (igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic), identify the materials which constitute the rock, and classify the rock using geological terminology.

The Geologic Maps event tests the student's ability to read a standardized geological map, interpret the geologic history of the region, and draw a two-dimensional cross section. In the past, maps have ranged from classic locations such as the Grand Canyon to more local targets like the Sequatchie Valley in eastern Tennessee. Questions in the Geologic Maps event task a student to provide latitude and longitude coordinates for particular features, interpret the three-dimensional orientation of general geologic structures, and determine the timing of events or deformation using cross-cutting relationships. Students who have completed a structural geology course and/or conducted field mapping generally are well-prepared for the Geologic Maps event.

Finally, an event showcasing field skills has been incorporated — the Pace and Compass event. This activity tests a student's knowledge of the cardinal directions, use of a Brunton compass for measuring bearing, and ability to translate raw data into a final product. Students begin by measuring their pace (showing all calculations and units, of course), and then proceed to shoot bearings and pace off distances along a course of flagged trees. The course is roughly circular, usually with a wonky twist thrown in. Once measurements have been made, students must convert their paces to distance in feet, and use the distances and bearings to "map" out the trees using a given scale (e.g., 1 inch = 25 feet). Field experience, either from class field trips or from a field geology course, is necessary to do well in this event.

... To Throwing Things for Distance or Accuracy

Non-academic events are geared toward freshman and sophomore-level students, although it's often a mix of upper and lower division students who participate. The idea is to offer something that students can compete in regardless of the subject matter they may have covered in their education. The events are usually related to the throwing of objects. Those objects have been for some years a rock hammer and a cauliflower geode. Competitors are given a few chances to either throw the object as far as possible (rock hammer or geode roll for distance) or throw towards a target, trying to land as close as possible (rock hammer or geode roll for accuracy).

Some years, a bonus event is offered, which completes the non-academic event part of the day. These bonus events are often related to teams racing around a short course, with their legs tied, or in bean bags, or holding hands in various ways.

Rock Bowl (Trivia Tournament)

The culminating event is the Rock Bowl, a quiz-bowl style tournament with multiple choice questions and two teams competing at a time. The on-going point totals are not displayed during the competition, but a general order of teams is revealed prior to the start of the Rock Bowl. The single elimination tournament bracket is set based on the current standings, and sometimes, the overall winner of the Geoconclave event may be decided by the Rock Bowl. The format includes 15 toss-up questions per round, with buzzers allowing individuals to answer. Teams who answer the toss-up question correctly are then given a bonus question, usually of slightly higher difficulty, but related to the toss-up question. The intensity builds as the teams make their way to the championship round. Spectators are encouraged to stay through all rounds, even if their team is eliminated early on. To keep competition friendly and engaging between schools, prizes may be raffled between rounds so that even students who are not competing have a chance to win. Popular prizes include lanyards, field notebooks, hand lenses, and—on occasion—rock hammers.

Meeting Peers and Faculty from Elsewhere

In 2019, the Geoconclave host school (University of Tennessee at Martin) provided dinner on Friday night, allowing everybody to arrive and socialize. To build the community, a game of bar-style team trivia was played, forming teams at random in order to mix students and faculty from different schools together. Ice breakers like this encourage networking, enabling students at different levels in their academic progress to meet peers and faculty from multiple institutions.

In recent years, representatives from the local branch of the American Institute for Professional Geologists (AIPG) have visited and provided a catered lunch, and hosted another competitive event, usually involving some form of geology trivia. The AIPG representatives speak to students about the benefits of membership (free to students) and also provide a perspective on finding a way into a career in geology. The representatives usually stay for part of the afternoon events and talk with students who are interested in becoming a licensed Professional Geologist (P.G.) following graduation, and leave application forms for interested students to take home. Local AIPG representatives have participated for seven years, offering tips along the way about searching for job opportunities, preparing for interviews, networking via other local societies, and advancing in a career.

Not all of the participating institutions have a graduate program; thus, Geoconclave offers the opportunity for students at smaller institutions to meet faculty and students at research universities with thriving graduate programs. The advantages are two-fold. First, students from smaller institutions have an opportunity to speak with any attending graduate students (graduate students may attend but not compete) and learn about the graduate application process and the advantages of pursuing an advanced degree. A second advantage is an opportunity for recruitment by faculty at larger programs. In the spirit of networking, faculty are encouraged to post flyers with information about open graduate positions at the onset of the meeting. Interested students can then get to know potential graduate advisors in a more personal way.

Preparing Future Leaders

Geoconclave tests the academic mettle of the students through friendly competition, and it also helps develop the soft skills that future employers value. The competition and camaraderie developed during Geoconclave help to sharpen teamwork and networking skills, and there are other, more subtle aspects of the weekend which build their skillsets. While the faculty arrange and moderate the events, the students are largely in charge of organizing their participation in the events. This is often done in the weeks leading up to Geoconclave. The students are also responsible for selecting a team captain who is in charge of making sure all team participants know when and where their events are held. This gives select students an opportunity to exercise leadership and gain organizational experience.

The group camping facilities at the state parks include a full-size industrial kitchen and dining hall. The students are responsible for planning and preparing meals for the weekend. This requires them to plan out a full menu and shop for supplies before leaving for Geoconclave and then prepare and cook meals throughout the weekend. As one can imagine, this is the part of Geoconclave that tests and stretches their abilities to communicate and compromise, exhibit dependability, and problem-solve in real-life situations outside of academic problems (e.g., managing space and coordinating with the other groups, who are all trying to prepare their own meals in the same kitchen). While some students take charge with meal preparation logistics, other students demonstrate initiative (and, arguably, ethics) by being responsible for the post-meal cleanup. While meal planning and preparation may seem a relatively ordinary task, many students are inexperienced in this area and/or have never had to plan out a menu for ten or more people before.

The weekend of Geoconclave allows many opportunities for students to exercise and hone a wide range of skills; the hard skills they have learned through their degree programs that will make them marketable to employers, as well as the soft skills they have gained by effectively and harmoniously working with others that will make them leaders within the workforce.

Want To Join The Fun?

In past years, schools have participated with as few as one representative student. If you can get your students here, we would love to have you. Want to start your own competition elsewhere? Consider attending next year as an observer. Contact the authors about getting involved.


Many institutions have participated in Geoconclave over its 40-year history; the list of their contributions would be nearly as long as this article. That said, the following individuals are recognized for their organization and enthusiastic participation in the 2018 and 2019 Geoconclave events: Michelle Casey (Murray State University), Nick Dygert (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Elizabeth Rhenberg (University of Tennessee, Memphis) and Randal Roberson (Austin Peay State University). Special thanks to Daniel Frederick (Austin Peay State University), Michael Gibson (University of Tennessee at Martin), Larry Knox (Tennessee Tech University) and Tom McComb (Barge Designs, American Institute for Professional Geologists) for supporting early career faculty who participate in this unique event. The event would not exist if not for these founding individuals: Ernie Blythe (University of Tennessee at Martin), Tom McCutchen (University of Tennessee at Martin), Wayne Leimer (Tennessee Tech University), Pete Helton (Tennessee Tech University), Don Byerly (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Mike Clark (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Bert Bordine (Middle Tennessee State University).

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