Using John Muir’s Archives in the Field to Enhance Observational Skills and Establish a Sense of Place

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Conference Title

Geological Society of America 129th Annual Meeting


Geological Society of America


Seattle, WA

Conference Dates

October 22-25, 2017

Date of Presentation



Integrating aspects of history and culture into field trip explorations of geologically significant regions invariably strengthens students’ ability to connect with the instructional material and to develop a deeper “sense of place.” These human connections are particularly important on introductory field trips, when students are developing a fundamental understanding of the relationship between geology, society, and their lives. Furthermore, keen observation skills are fundamental to exploration and discovery, particularly when integrated with activities designed to highlight “sense of place.” This integration provides students opportunities for connecting deeply with a place by delving into its history and culture while exploring the geology that ultimately shaped the human landscape. Unfortunately, instructors often lack the time and resources to develop such connections. This contribution seeks to share the results of a successful, five-year collaboration between a traditional undergraduate geology department and a university special collections to bring archival resources and history to geology field trips. Our initial efforts turned short readings and sketches selected from the journals and correspondence of naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) into interactive activities in the field guidebooks for four-day introductory geology field trips. These readings were chosen for their ability to provide students with examples of how Muir used language to communicate observations. Muir’s sketches of some of the same landscapes students viewed along the trip route were used to encourage students to reflect upon how Muir also used images to communicate ideas. We also incorporated archival material associated with WWII Japanese-American Internment, historic accounts and maps from various regions, and historically significant pioneers in the evolution of the science of geology. Positive student responses in course evaluations (30% increase in their confidence in explaining how to make observations, 40% increase in their understanding of Muir and his legacy, and nearly a 50% increase in their understanding of sense of place) have led us to expand the application of this approach to weeklong field trips to the Colorado Plateau and Scotland for geology majors.


DOI: 10.1130/abs/2017AM-307591