Initial Publication Date: December 12, 2013
EUP student inspecting river channel deposits of Devonian Catskill clastic wedge, Kaaterskill Falls, NY

A Theme Based Field Course on the Geology of New York

Dr. Joe Reese and Dr. Eric Straffin
Department of Geosciences
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Edinboro, PA 16444
phone numbers: 814-732-2814 / 1573.

Intended Audience: teachers, science education students, and geoscience majors


Northern Pennsylania and New York State


This field course travels to key geologic sites in New York and revolves around a few central, unifying themes. It is used to show fundamental concepts in the geosciences, including relationships between geologic processes, materials, and landforms, for specific Earth systems. The course also demonstrates how system interactions and changes are used to interpret Earth history, to explain occurrences of economically important materials, and to understand current environmental issues such as natural hazards and resources. This course focuses on the physical and historical geology of New York, while serving the curriculum needs of teachers, science education students, and geoscience majors.


The course is 14 days long. Two days are used prior to the field trip to give a pre-test, to review important physical and historical geology principles, and to introduce students to some specifics of New York geology. The trip itself is 11 days long. A final day is used to give a post-test and for students to prepare a trip summary PowerPoint presentation.

The field trip is designed for a small number of participants, from 6 to 12. This corresponds to either one van-load or two. We stay in small motels along the way, so the vagaries of late spring weather won't interrupt us. Cost of the trip is ~$550, plus tuition. We've designed the trip to maximize time in Saratoga Springs and Ithaca, two towns that provide interesting alternative activities and eateries for culturally active, thirsty, and hungry field-tripping geologists.

No prerequisites are required, though knowledge of introductory level physical and historical geology is beneficial. Most trip participants have previously taken introductory physical and historical geology. Advanced students typically mentor entry-level students while on the trip.

EUP field trip instructor, Eric Straffin, pointing out the Taconic unconformity, along Route 23, Catskill, NY


This field course is an introduction to the geology of New York. Through the use of specific field examples, students are introduced to fundamental geoscience concepts such as Earth system; (a) interactions and cycles, (b) composition and structure, (c) processes affecting the surface and interior, and (d) history. After completing the field course, the student should be able to understand and explain the principles and features of: 1) rocks and minerals, the formation of rocks, and the rock cycle; 2) Earth history, the geologic time scale, and dating techniques; 3) earth structures and rock deformation; 4) plate tectonic theory; 5) surficial processes such as coastal, river and glacial systems, groundwater, and the hydrologic cycle, and 6) the occurrence of natural resources.


We've purposefully designed the trip around five central, overarching themes. The themes are (1) Quaternary surficial processes/landforms, (2) water as a resource/geologic agent, (3) mountain-building processes, (4) Paleozoic stratigraphy, and (5) regional geologic history. Sub-themes include synthesis of Appalachian tectonic cycles, Catskill delta facies analysis, unconformity recognition, and human-environment interactions.

These themes connect geographically distant points together—ones visited for their geologic interest perhaps several days apart—and continually center students back to the foci of the trip. Though the distribution of key geologic localities across New York controls the logistical design of the trip, its educational structure and direction revolves around a few main points. The strategy for conducting this theme-based field trip is to attach each field stop, and activities and exercises done at each stop, to at least one of these main points. With this in mind, students become more adept at integrating and synthesizing information. They link bits of knowledge, use details to assemble larger scale stories, and are more fully engaged throughout the trip. We've created a course that 1) provides students the opportunity to experience the joys of discovery in the field, 2) has students actively participate in the acquisition of knowledge, 3) bolsters observational, interpretive, synthesis and inquiry skills, and 4) requires students to communicate their findings in a variety of ways. Using themes also provided a superb framework for the instructors to review and/or outline each field day.

Students conduct pre-trip exercises to solidify their general geologic knowledge and to focus on the geology of New York. They then participate in the 11-day field excursion to classic localities across the state. During the trip, students are provided with specific tasks involving observation and interpretation of key sites. Maintaining a detailed journal helps students focus on the themes. The first four themes are addressed on a daily basis. Throughout the course, students work toward answering the following questions for each theme:

  • Quaternary surficial processes/landforms
    Based on your trip observations; a) outline the major processes that have modified the Earth's surface, and b) cite examples from our trip that can be used to reconstruct Quaternary surface environmental/climatic conditions.
  • Water as a resource
    Outline the variety of ways that water; a) is used as a resource, and b) acts as a geologic agent.
  • Mountain building and deformation
    Reconstruct/outline the tectonic history (focusing on orogenies) of NY, by citing examples of deformation features from our trip.
  • Paleozoic stratigraphy
    A) Reconstruct the major changes in sedimentary environments (facies) of the Paleozoic Era in NY. B) Cite examples from our trip that demonstrate major facies changes in Devonian Period sedimentary systems.

The final theme, the Geologic history of NY, is based on student understanding of what he/she has seen in the field, read in the text, and recorded in his/her journal. This part of the course is accomplished individually after completion of the last field stop and on the drive home. The major task here is for the student to outline, in chronological order, the major events in the geologic history of New York. After the trip, students, as a group, construct an electronic presentation summarizing the geologic history of New York.

Notes and Tips:

We purposefully use field localities that do not require special permission for access. Several sites, especially state parks and museums, have admission fees, which are included in the Field Trip course fee. Some sites are located along very busy roads, so please use extreme caution!

Cambrian stromatolites, Lester Park, near Saratoga Springs, NY

Assessment and Evaluation:

We use a variety of measures to assess student participation and performance. Pre-trip / post-trip tests are given to assess and reinforce basic physical and historical geology skills, concepts, and knowledge. This comprehensive exam is administered and promptly graded and used as a review. Using a comparison of pre- and post-trip test results, students have demonstrated significantly better comprehension of basic geologic concepts. Students are expected to maintain a daily Journal (see below) and actively participate in daily activities. As such, a portion of the grade is based on participation and appropriate behavior through the duration of the course. In addition, daily questions / assignments are posed for each field site. Students work individually and as a group to provide plausible answers to those questions. Short summaries of how several sites are related allow students to synthesize aspects of the trip. Students also make a final presentation on Power Point the last day of the class to summarize the key points of the trip, and to provide a lasting record of the course activities.

Journal expectations:
The daily Journal should be paginated, and include:

  • An index page indicating field stop and respective page numbers.
  • Notes with sketches/labels, with each field site on separate, dated page(s).
  • Daily summary/comments following each days notes (focus on the theme questions)
  • Questions that you have for instructors

Materials and Handouts:

Delano, H.L., 1991, Presque Isle State Park: Pennsylvania Trail of Geology Park Guide 21, Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Harrisburg, PA, 13 p.

Isachsen, Y.W., Landing, E., Lauber, J.M., Rickard, L.V., Rogers, W.B., eds., 2000, Geology of New York: A Simplified Account, 2nd Edition: New York State Museum Educational Leaflet 28, Albany, NY, 294 p. (This book is our required textbook for the course.)

Janke, P.R., president, 2002, Correlated History of Earth poster, 4th Edition: Pan Terra Inc., Hill City, SD.

Kappal, W.M., Miller, T.S., and Yager, R.M., 1998, Effects of the 1994 Retsof Salt Mine Collapse in the Genesee Valley, New York: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 017-98, 4 p.

McLelland, J., 2003, Geology and geochronology of the southern Adirondacks: in Johnson, E.L., ed., New York State Geological Association 75th Annual Meeting Guidebook, p. 177-196. (This field guide is the basis for an all-day exercise in reconstructing the Grenville Orogeny in the southern Adirondacks. See Day 5 above—the Southern Adirondacks loop.)

Rogers, W.B., Isachsen, Y.W., Mock, T.D., Nyahay, R.E., 1990, New York State Geological Highway Map: New York State Museum Educational Leaflet 33, Albany, NY. (This is another required item for the trip.)


Allmon, W.D., and Ross, R.M., 2002, Ithaca Is Gorges: A Guide to the Geology of the Ithaca Area: The Paleontological Institution, Ithaca, NY, 20 p.

Brett, C.E., and Calkin, P.E., 1987, Niagara Falls and Gorge, New York—Ontario: in Centennial Field Guide Volume 5, Roy, D.C., ed., Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America, p. 97-106.

Bridge, J., and Jarvis, S., 1998, Devonian fluvial and shallow marine strata, Schoharie Valley, New York: in New York State Geological Association 70th Annual Meeting Guidebook, p. 43-69.

Engelder, T., Geiser, P., and Bahat, D., 1987, Alleghanian deformation within shales and siltstones of the Upper Devonian Appalachian Basin, Finger Lakes District, New York: in Centennial Field Guide Volume 5, Roy, D.C., ed., Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America, p. 113-118.

Friedman, G.M., 1997, Cambro-Ordovician and modern carbonate facies of the Mohawk-Hudson Valleys, New York: in New York State Geological Association 69th Annual Meeting Guidebook, p. 65-83.

Johnson, K.G., 1987, Strand-line facies of the Catskill Tectonic Delta Complex (Middle and Upper Devonian) in eastern New York State: in Centennial Field Guide Volume 5, Roy, D.C., ed., Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America, p. 129-132.

Landing, E., Pe-Piper, G., Kidd, W.S.F., and Azmy, K., 2003, Tectonic setting of outer trench slope volcanism: Pillow basalt and limestone in the Taconian orogen of eastern New York: Can. J. Earth Sci., v. 40, no. 12, p. 1773-1787.

Leech, M.L., Howell, D.G., and Egger, A.E., 2004, A guided inquiry approach to learning the geology of the U.S.: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 52, no. 4, p. 368-373.

Marshak, S., 1990, Structural geology of Silurian and Devonian strata in the Mid-Hudson Valley, New York: New York State Museum Map and Chart Series 41, Albany, NY.

Marshak, S., and Engelder, T., 1987, Exposures of the Hudson Valley Fold-Thrust Belt, west of Catskill, New York: in Centennial Field Guide Volume 5, Roy, D.C., ed., Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America, p. 123-128.

Miller, M.G., 2001, Regional geology as a unifying theme and springboard to deep time: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 49, no. 1, p. 10-17.

Riggs, E. and Kimbrough, D., 2002, Implementation of Constructivist pedagogy in a geoscience course designed for pre-service K-6 teachers: Progress, pitfalls, and lessons learned: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 50, no. 1, p.49-55.

Stanitski, D.M., and Fuellhart K., 2003, Development of short-term study abroad classes for university students: Journal of Geography v. 102, no. 5.

Vermilye, J.M., 2003, Problem-based mini-exercises for geoscience fieldtrips: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 35, no. 6, p. 46-47.