HONORS 1540: Course Description

HONORS 1540: Honors Field Studies in Wyoming (6 credits)

Course Objectives


  • Learn relevant concepts, field methods, and fundamental questions of ecology and paleontology in expanding our understanding of the coming and going of both natural and human-influenced ecological associations.
  • Connect the geological, paleontological, ecological, and archeological resources of the Spring Creek Preserve to the broader context of deep time and more recent biological change in the Rocky Mountain West.
  • Appreciate how the American West is distinct in its approaches and challenges of sustaining resources by the force of its history, water resources, culture, and economic profiles.
  • Place discoveries in a context for understanding how geological, biological, and historic processes shape, constrain, and threaten the modern landscape.


HONORS 1540, the centerpiece offering at Spring Creek, is a six-week course of studies centered in geology, paleontology, and ecology, with a concentrated segment on Native American culture and archaeology. The studies are brought into focus through field lectures, practicums, and discussions exploring the physical and biological features of the landscape that define each area of inquiry. The central goal is to illustrate the many ways which physical and biological systems interact to shape the landscape, demonstrating that the current ecosystem and its associated sustainability challenges result from activities and changes ranging from small to large scale both in the time past and in more recent, human-dominated times.

Students and staff divide their time between a home base of lodging at the Tyler Sims Outfitting Ranch at the foot of the Medicine Bow Mountains in Arlington, WY (tylersims.com/bunkhouse-2), and several days each week residing in tents under the stars and the big sky at the Preserve. The intellectual objective of the class, broadly speaking, is to develop an understanding of the complex geological, biological, and historical processes that have shaped the landscape and constrain its future. Students learn that both sweeping forces (the uplift and erosion of mountain chains, the inundation and retreat of inland seas) and subtle ones (a small change in topography collects snow drifts in the winter, retaining more moisture and allowing sagebrush to grow in that location and not another) must all be taken into account to understand the present distribution and interactions of plants and animals, including humans, in the Laramie Basin or the world at large.

It is difficult to imagine, given the cold, wind-swept prairies of the Laramie Basin today, that the region looked very different 150 million years ago when herds of dinosaurs moved through a semitropical, forested landscape populated by a diverse fauna of fish, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and small mammals. Yet the evidence of that past is all around. The Jurassic Morrison Formation, home to some of the most famous dinosaurs known from North America, outcrops prominently on the Spring Creek Preserve. HONORS 1540 explores the Morrison Formation and other Mesozoic terrestrial and marine deposits by prospecting for fossils, practicing field excavation techniques, and analyzing the sedimentary context of fossil discoveries to make inferences about paleoecological interactions; modes of life, death, burial, and fossil preservation; and large-scale perturbations such as climate change and sea level fluctuation. Such perturbations and their evidence in the fossil record are examined through course readings and discussions to understand the connection between intrinsic and extrinsic factors and rates of background and mass extinction in the earth’s past.

Students connect a strong understanding of the Preserve’s deep past to a series of activities evaluating its present condition and biodiversity and its possible future trajectories. Starting with field lectures by prominent regional ecologists, the class then learns to identify key species of the local and regional fauna and flora and investigate their ecological roles in the Rocky Mountain West. A series of exercises for the class both on the Preserve and in nearby mountain habitats highlight key scientific questions and methods of data collection for western ecologists. Activities include estimating the biodiversity of landscapes, characterizing avian communities, understanding macroinvertebrate life in streams, quantifying habitat degradation, and exploring prairie dogs as potential keystone species.

Included throughout are frequent excursions into the nearby Laramie Mountains that bound our prairie to the east and north, and into the Medicine Bow Mountains to the south that rise to lakes and snow-capped peaks over 12,000 feet. Rounding out the course are forays into Native American cultures of the region through archaeology, and the history of the settlement of the West involving wagon trains, railroads, irrigation, extractive industries, and privatization of property versus public land reserves. Students make frequent use of the UW Geological Museum and library, and there are field trips to historical sites such as the Virginian Hotel in the town of Medicine Bow that commemorates America’s first western novel, and the new Wyoming Territorial Prison Museum in Laramie that chronicles life and justice in the frontier west. Finally, the class investigates select geological, ecological, and historical sites in Wyoming by way of camping trips into notable regions.

HONORS 1540 has no prerequisites and is open to freshmen through seniors from all majors. The cost in 2017 will be approximately $5,700 not including roundtrip passage to Denver.


Students are assigned a variety of journal articles and book chapters to read prior to arrival in Wyoming, and throughout the summer. Many of these readings provide the necessary background context allowing field activities to proceed with minimal lecture time. Other readings provide centerpieces for group discussions extending field activities to broader topics. Students successfully complete the course by designing and carrying out an independent study project (detailed below), maintaining a descriptive field notebook including detailed notes and illustrative sketches, vigorously participating in activities and discussions, and submitting satisfactory written reports of daily field exercises. Some examples of these activities include monitoring the plant growth and diversity in a long-term exclosure, testing the hypothesis (by estimating the biodiversity of plants, insects, small mammals, or other groups) that prairie dogs are ecologically keystone species, evaluating all available data in a dinosaur quarry to report on its taphonomy (the record of all processes from death to discovery of a fossil site), and combining evaluation of the paleoecology of marine fossil animals and the sedimentary features of surrounding rocks to detail the history of sea level change in Cretaceous marine units.

A critical component of the course is an independent study project, usually in geology, paleontology or ecology, wherein students connect their own field observations to valid scientific research questions and form testable hypotheses. By the fourth week of the class, students submit project proposals explaining the methods and materials they will use to test their hypotheses within a very limited time constraint. Field data is collected over two to three days in the final week of the course, and students analyze and present their results in a plenary session convened with course instructors and outside reviewers on the last day of class. Grading for the ongoing project is based on the project proposal, the conference presentation (including comments from fellow students) and a short paper written in the style of a scientific journal submission.


Students are assigned a variety of journal articles and book chapters to read prior to arrival in Wyoming, and throughout the summer. These readings provide the necessary background context allowing field activities to proceed with minimal lecture time. For details of these readings, see the course itinerary.


Kyle Whittinghill, PhD
Lecturer, Department of Geology and Environmental Science, University of Pittsburgh

Kelli Trujillo, PhD
Paleontologist - Geologist
Adjunct Research Scientist, Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming

William Elliot, PhD
Chair, Department of Geology and Physics, University of Southern Indiana 

Richard Adams, PhD
Department of Anthropology, Colorado State University

Gary Beauvais, PhD
Director, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, University of Wyoming

Charles Jones, PhD
Lecturer and Program Advisor for Bachelor of Science Degree
Department of Geology and Environmental Science, University of Pittsburgh

Edward McCord, PhD, JD (Director)
Director of Special Programs, University Honors College, University of Pittsburgh
Affiliate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh

Additional Faculty Contributors

Matthew Lamanna, PhD
Assistant Curator, Vertebrate Paleontology, CMNH

Tom Rea
Historian and Author, Casper, Wyoming
Notable book— Bone Wars: The Excavation of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

Additional experts from divisions of the University of Wyoming will join the course for discussions.