Initial Publication Date: December 12, 2013

Sage to Sea - Columbia Plateau, across the North Cascades and to Whidbey Island WA

Drs. Jenny Thomson and John Buchanan, Department of Geology, 130 Science Building, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004 509 359-2286; Drs. Suzanne Schwab and Robin O'Quinn, Department of Biology, 258 Science Building, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004 509 359-2339

Intended Audience:This interdisciplinary field course is designed for college students both undergraduate and graduate majoring in geology, biology, or environmental science, K-12 instructors, and for those seeking continuing education experiences. At EWU the course meets a degree requirement for a five-credit elective field-oriented study for our majors. The interdisciplinary (geology, botany, ecology) approach to our field course has allowed us to offer neither a typical geology field camp course nor a traditional plant identification or plant ecology course for majors in geology or biology and may be used by other institutions wishing to do the same. Although the nature of the student population taking the course has evolved over the years students consistently cite the opportunity to directly observe in the field abstractions that they've so far only read about and the opportunity to integrate biologic and geologic processes as the primary attractions of the course.


Northern Washington state


This transect across northern Washington State was one of our most geologically and biologically diverse field trips. The trip started with a drive across the relatively uniform basalt flows of the Columbia plateau and then traversed the extremely geologically complex North Cascades accessible from a scenic route through the small, and relatively less-traveled, North Cascades National Park. Steep gradients in elevation annual precipitation and winter temperatures revealed equally dramatic changes in vegetation from cold desert shrub lands to temperate coastal rain forests. Like previous trips, this one allowed students to observe glacial processes up close and trace the history of plant succession as glaciers retreat.


Each of our summer field classes runs between seven and nine days in length beginning and ending in Cheney, Washington near Spokane. Students are required to attend an evening pre-trip meeting approximately one week before departure. At this meeting instructors review the goals and academic requirements physical rigor of the course equipment list and packing tips and have them sign a waiver to provide us with contact information and any health issues that we should know about that might impact their participation in the course. The first and last days are primarily travel days with one or two scheduled field stops to introduce the students to the physiographic provinces that we would visit on the trip. We camp at U.S. Forest Service Bureau of Land Management or National Park campgrounds each night. We travel with three instructors (two in geology and one in botany) and take up to twenty student participants (10 Geology, 10 Biology, can vary). Our geology students have not necessarily had a course in plant identification and our biology students have not necessarily had a course in geology. We provide the foundation upon which students can build their knowledge and from which they can draw from both fields and instructors expertise. This goal of familiarizing biology students with geology and geology students with botany such that communication is possible is met by the pre-trip question assignment as well as by incorporating introductory-level lectures into the course when the need arises.


The primary learning goals for our students taking this class are:

  1. to familiarize students with basic introductory-level concepts and processes in the fields of geology and botany,
  2. for students to use their knowledge to integrate the complex relationships between these two fields,
  3. for students to learn to make and record observations in the field and to understand the connectivity between geology botany and human impact if any, and
  4. for students to collect and record geological data in the field for evaluation (e.g. measuring dinosaur tracks to calculate size).


We (instructors with student input) choose the destination for the following year's field trip by late October giving us ample time to prepare the logistics of the trip and to obtain internal approval. This includes mapping out a trip route and selected stops along the way as well as camping locations. Reservations for group sites at state-run and National Park campgrounds are made in advance although some National Forest Service campgrounds do not allow reservations. Total distance traveled is typically less than 2560 km (1600 mi). Twenty students and three instructors travel comfortably in 12-15 passenger vans with one U-Haul trailer to carry camping gear and food containers. Students carry their daypacks in the vehicles. We do not allow the use of coolers instead we typically stop at a grocery store en route approximately every two to three days. These stops allow students to replenish their supplies of much appreciated fresh produce and meat to supplement the dried and canned food eaten between stops. Hikes incorporated into the field experience range from relatively short (less than 1 mile jaunts) to more extended day-long hikes [to 10 miles round-trip with variable vertical elevation changes 60 - 1130 m (200 to 3700 ft)] and it is expected that students will be in very good physical condition. Students must be able to carry out physical activity at high elevation occasionally to as high as 2290 - 2590 m (7500 - 8500 ft). Students with personal medical concerns must notify an instructor before participating in the field trip. The cost to students is for tuition on a per credit basis (for 5 summer quarter credits) and an additional course fee is used to cover transportation and camping costs. Despite fluctuations in gas prices over the years our course fee has averaged around $150.00. Students are responsible for providing their own camping gear and food and are encouraged to share tents and stoves. We provide our students with a list of recommended equipment.

Notes and Tips:

National Park entry fee waivers for educational institutions are available at A course fee in addition to tuition pays for transportation and camping fees. The fee varies from trip to trip and from year to year. Some extended hiking is typically done on our trips and it is expected that students will be in very good physical condition. On many trips students must be able to carry out sustained physical activity at high elevation every day. Students must provide their own camping gear and food during the trip. Students taking the course for credit in partial fulfillment of their degree program must enroll for a grade. All other continuing education students may take the pass/fail option if they so desire but must complete the field notebook and pre-trip and post-trip questions.

Assessment and Evaluation:

Assessment of course goals is acquired by examining a student's understanding of the material in the way in which they have answered the pre- and post-trip questions. The answers to the pre-trip questions are obtained by reading assignments and so force the students into the literature and the learning of concepts on their own with or without previous formal education. Further learning comes from their ability to take good field notes and to use those notes in answering the post-trip questions that are specifically designed to assess our goal of integration. Student's field notebooks are often accompanied by sketches, botanical rubbings, pressed plants, photographs, and post cards purchased at park visitor centers. Students also demonstrate learning by researching and writing a paper with a topic of their choice. We encourage students to discuss their research paper topic with one of us prior to the end of the field trip although students wrote and submitted their research papers. The paper guidelines that we provide are very specific 9e.g. paper length and format, a clearly stated purpose in the introduction, citations of a minimum of three solid references, a clear summary of key points made in the paper). The research papers submitted after the trip by our students are well written even by students who have had very little geology or biology in their formal education. The journal entries are insightful and reflective and often reveal their new found understanding of the relationships between geology and botany. Each instructor carefully reads the answers to pre- and post-trip questions field notebook and journal entries and research paper. Final grades are decided at a faculty meeting and range from 2.0 - 4.0.

Materials and Handouts:


Thomson J.A. Buchanan J.P. and Schwab S. 2006 An integrative summer field course in geology and biology for K-12 instructors and college and continuing education students at Eastern Washington University and beyond. Journal of Geoscience Education v. 54 588 - 595.

Also see References under Materials and Handouts