Wyoming Field Courses Expand

Pictured above: Yellowstone Course Students ascend the Beartooth Highway moments from their arrival in Billings.

By Ed McCord

The two Honors College field courses in Wyoming were true to form this summer—spectacular as usual.  “It was the best experience of my life,” a student reports.  In an intense fare covering one month, the four-credit Yellowstone Field Course guided its students through studies of Yellowstone geology, ecology, and environmental policy as they hiked every day through the Park, the Beartooth Mountains, and incomparable Sunlight Basin.  Ten students were enrolled, nine from Pitt and one from the University of Wyoming.  The seasoned instructors were Professor of Geology Bill Harbert, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database Director Gary Beauvais, and environmental reporter Don Hopey, who coached each student in fishing for trout during breaks in their creek-side discussions of Yellowstone’s tumultuous political controversies.

The Honors College has run the Yellowstone Course for more than twenty years.   Meanwhile, on the high grass prairie of the Laramie Basin in the other corner of Wyoming, sixteen students tackled a demanding fare of another course still under expansion and deserving a bit more attention in this article.  It is the six-credit Honors College Wyoming Field Course that is based on the University’s Allen L. Cook Spring Creek Preserve, and each summer it provides studies in ecology, geology, paleontology, and archaeology spanning long days and brilliant star canopied nights camping on the Preserve.  

Pictured above: Night on the Cook Preserve

In an exceptional twist, two graduates of the Wyoming Field Course from years past who are completing their Ph.D.s at the University of Michigan, Tim Gallagher and Allie Tessin, returned to teach our 2015 students, joining the lead instructors, Mandi Lyon from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Dr. Steve Latta from the National Aviary, and Dr. Kelli Trujillo from the University of Wyoming.  Tim led the students on a hike in the Medicine Bow Mountains and helped them interpret outcrops of some of the oldest rocks in the region, capped with exploration of 1.7 billion-year-old stromatolites (evidence of early life on the planet).  Allie took the students on a tour of the Cretaceous marine outcrops on the Spring Creek property, synthesizing the data the students collected on rocks and fossils at each outcrop into a history of sea level rise and fall and climate change during the Mesozoic.

During a day of prospecting in the dinosaur fossil-bearing Morrison Formation on the Cook Preserve, students rediscovered a long-overlooked locality on the property far from our active quarry that holds dinosaur material both on the surface and partially buried in the ground.  Two students returned to this site for their final project, and rapidly excavated material including a diplodocid caudal (tail) vertebra.  All material was re-buried, and the site is marked for further excavation in a future summer.

Guest experts at the Wyoming Field Course this summer included Carlos Martinez del Rio and Gary Beauvais from the Berry Biodiversity Center.  Dr. Martinez del Rio set the stage for the entire course by touring the students on the Spring Creek property on their very first day in the field, pointing out unique features and biota of the Laramie Valley landscape and discussing their deeper ecological connections.  Dr. Beauvais helped wrap up the class by intrepidly leading the class up Medicine Bow Peak to a high elevation of 12,000 feet.  He showed how ecological processes on the mountain both connected to and were different from sites we explored in the basin.  Additionally, archaeologist Dr. Rich Adams provided the students with an amazing day investigating the topic of experimental archaeology.  Students learned about Native American food gathering, weapon construction and use, and shelter-building by participating in each of these activities.  The class concluded with a week-long statewide educational tour that encompassed substantial hikes in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.

Instructor Mandi Lyon explains why porous fossilized bone will stick to a licked finger.

The Honors College Yellowstone Field Course and Wyoming Field Course are each now filling spaces for summer 2016.  Enrollment is open to honors-qualified students of all majors, and there are no prerequisites.  All who are interested should contact Dr. Ed McCord at emccord@pitt.edu in the University Honors College as soon as possible.