Students travel west for geography field experience

July 7, 2016
Entire group of students in Chaco Culture National Historic Park

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Sixteen students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville recently learned about the physical and cultural geography of the western United States during a three-week field experience as part of the Field Geography of the Western United States course. In the course, offered at the university since 1972, students study the human and cultural geography, physical geography, and environmental issues of the southwestern region of the United States.

The trip was led by UW-Platteville’s Dr. Richard Waugh, professor of geography; Dr. Chris Underwood, assistant professor of geography; and Dr. Lynnette Dornak, assistant professor of geography. Tom Wilding, a teaching academic staff member in the department of geography at UW-Platteville, and Sarah Scott, a former UW-Platteville student who is now a Geographic Information Systems Specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Phonenix, Arizona, also helped lead the trip.

“Geography is essentially about explaining why the world is the way it is,” said Waugh. “As a result, geographers have always gone out into the world to study the processes that produce the human, physical and environmental world that we live in. This course continues in that tradition. Experiential field geography opens up the world to students in ways that are impossible in a more traditional classroom. Standing in the middle of a 1,000-year old pueblo makes it so much easier to understand the connection Native peoples have to the Earth and their cultural heritage, or experiencing the heat and aridity of the Mojave Desert raises obvious questions about the impact of human infrastructure on such landscapes.”

On the trip, students studied a variety of human and cultural geography topics, including ancestral and current Native Americans as well as the Euro-American use of the desert southwest, which is tied to environmental issues raised by its use. To study these topics, they spent time in Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito and the Aztec Ruins in New Mexico; Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the Navajo Reservation of northeastern Arizona and more.

Students also studied a variety of physical geography topics, including the formation of landforms, including mountains, volcanoes, sand dunes and river systems. They explored the evolution of the earth as evidenced in the rock strata; varying climates, focusing on atmospheric factors that produced the different climates; the response of vegetation to climate and topography; the role of fire in landscape and plant evolution; and the distribution of animals and plants. To study these topics, they spent time in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, San Juan Mountains and several national parks including Great Sand Dunes, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

In addition, students addressed a variety of environmental topics, including the impact of climate change on the southwestern United States, especially the death of aspen and various species of pine trees, as well as the shifting of ecosystems in the Rocky Mountain National Park. They also studied the use of water in the southwest and the impacts resulting from human alteration of water systems throughout Utah and Nevada, especially at Hoover Dam and Las Vegas, Nevada, and human-created floods in the Grand Canyon.

Students explored all the places on the itinerary, both accompanied by faculty and also on their own. “Everything we did was hands-on,” said Waugh. “When we discussed Pueblo Bonito, the students were standing in ancient rooms inside the building and walking through the kivas and plazas associated with the building. Our discussion on dune formation was at the site of the largest dunes in North America (Great Sand Dunes National Park) and was accompanied by the students walking the dunes, which gave a strong visceral imprint of the concepts of slip-faces and dune formation. Water use in the desert southwest was done while they were in the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in North America, followed by a visit to Las Vegas, a city with a metro population of over 1,000,000. Students were asked to reflect on how such a city could exist in an area of extreme water shortage. Our experience in the Mojave Desert was added to by a fly-over from a peregrine falcon, a species that is endangered. There were literally dozens of other examples.”

“I’ve taken multiple geography and geology course here at UW-Platteville,” said Anna Schulz, a junior geography major from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. “The Western Trip really helped me to understand the key concepts and principles at a much deeper level, and solidify everything I’ve learned through my classes.”

During the trip, students completed research projects in which they were required to construct a visual image of some aspect of the southwestern United States using their own photography. This required them to develop a theme that could be illustrated photographically which they explored throughout the trip. Each photo had to be explained in detail and had to be tied to the geographic factors that were represented in their projects.

UW-Platteville students who participated in the trip included Katelyn Grgich, Megan Burbach, Brad Kruppe, Brooke Kruppe, Will Lindley, Narisha Reddy, Micah Darling, Anna Riedl, Shannon Drexler, Lydia Snyder, Anna Schulz, Zach Fischer, Angela Leiser, Lucas Harding, Kody Kraabel and Lydia Sanchez. Students were from a variety of disciplines, including geography, secondary education, history, mechanical engineering, pre-pharmacy, criminal justice, computer science, pre-veterinarian medicine, biology, software engineering and media studies.

As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities, and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The western United States field experience aligns with the priorities of providing an outstanding education and fostering a community of achievement and respect.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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