Geology students experience the thrill of fieldwork during their summer camp exercises in the Bighorn Basin.
Here's a good reason to major in geology: Have you seen the starting salaries lately?
Here's another good reason:
The summer programs are interesting, educational and fun, and you get to play in the dirt.
Unfortunately, for the past 10 or 15 years even that wasn't enough to provide an attractive career option for many students. Geology department numbers had dwindled, and the eternal struggle between the theoretical versus the practical -- should a university prepare a student for scholarship or for work? -- shaped the debate on how to reverse the trend.
The battle for geology departments became one of survival.
"There was an ongoing concern," says Rick Chamberlain, senior engagement manager with Strategic Decisions Group's Oil and Gas Practice, "that there weren't enough young people coming into the industry."
AAPG member Chamberlain had -- and has -- more than a passing interest in this. He's a strong advocate of forming and maintaining creative and effective programs to attract younger people to the profession, and he's a guest instructor at the Iowa State University/University of Nebraska-Lincoln summer geology field camp who for the past two years has joined the ISU/UNL faculty in June for a week of applied geology exercises this summer in the Bighorn Basin.
His student-based focus comes from the same fear that many academic and AAPG leaders feel: Without new students, academic departments could die, and the profession would have no future.
Chamberlain cites figures that started several years ago regarding the "graying" of geology, which indicate the current average age for an industry geologist is 48; relatively few geologists between the ages of 25 and 35 can be found.
"We experienced a double whammy," he said of the suggestive trends. "People were looking to retire and nobody was there to back them up.
"The fundamental failing," he said, "was not communicating what jobs were available."
Or perhaps it was the fact that not very long ago everyone did know what jobs were available, and the move away from geology -- particularly petroleum geology -- reflected not a mistake, but a choice.
But now, he says, the situation is getting attention, because "industry is talking out loud."
And apparently the world of academia -- both faculties and students -- has listened.
Which brings us back to summer camps.
Having the whole exploration experience: Outdoor work is great, but then comes the next step of a prospect development exercise.
Erik P. Kvale, director of the Iowa State University/University of Nebraska, Lincoln geology field camp and Indiana University researcher, says that environmental curricula was added in the early 1990s to many of the camps and university departments for a practical reason:
That's where "many of our students were finding work."
"This is important," he said, "because if the departments and the field camps do not acknowledge that a number of students will get a job in environmental fields, then they're not doing their job to help train them."
Ironically, it is the potential for new jobs that is again influencing some changing priorities, this time back toward oil careers.
In the past, the vicissitudes of the industry forced many to consider the longevity of a career as a geologist, but Chamberlain believes, as many do, that higher energy prices are here to stay.
As are the jobs.
Chamberlain says students are being hired out of programs with salaries as high as $80,000 per year.
It is now, for Chamberlain and Kvale, a different world.
"When Rick and I were students," says Kvale, "there was not a lot of talking about jobs in the environmental field. Now the opposite is true.
Kvale wants to dispel the notion, however, that there's any friction between the two areas of study.
"I don't know a geologist who's not an environmentalist."
Kvale says his summer camp program is designed for students to think in a "broader, three dimensional way." He cites their field camp exercises in channel facies modeling and the mapping of carbonate fracture permeability as proof that this is no longer your father's geology.
In addition, there are exercises in the interpretation of topographic maps, structural geology, the linking of surface geology to petrophysical logs, sequence stratigraphy and biostratigraphy, oil and gas prospecting and core analysis.
Also participating in the instruction is Howard White, a sedimentologist with the Houston-based worldwide exploration technology group of Kerr-McGee. White, a 34-year AAPG member, works with students during the core analysis and sequence stratigraphic exercises.
To underscore the growth and maturity of summer field camps, Kvale says, "I didn't look at a rock core until I took a job as a professional geologist."
A Practical Approach
Based out of a permanent field station in northern Wyoming in the Bighorn Mountains at the mouth of Shell Canyon (about 18 miles east of the town of Greybull), Chamberlain says the ISU summer camp site is a special place.
"Erik knows the area," he says of his friend, and then laughs about a field team from another university that came up and got their van stuck during an intense rain storm.
During the six-week camp, students work in the Bighorn Basin and then traverse through Yellowstone Park and the Teton Mountain Region -- typically hiking three or more miles per day.
"The goal," he says, "is to give them a stronger practical background."
Jon Reis, a junior at Iowa State University, said this new hands-on, more complete geological field camp experience solidified his decision to enter the profession.
"I had never really done any work in the field or had the chance to see what we had learned in class."
One of the highlights Reis mentioned was presenting his oil well project.
"This is a particularly long week for students," says Chamberlain, "with long days in the field and late nights preparing their maps and reports."
And the results?
"Last year, we drilled the hole (via the computer) and it came up dry," says Chamberlain.
"This year, our well generated a $16-million profit."
"At the camp we learned great working skills," he said. "We learned to work individually on projects, but we had to also learn to work in groups."
For all the talk about the new face of the young geologist, there is a cautionary note -- and perhaps some of that resistance still lingers -- from ISU Geological and Atmospheric Sciences Department chair Carl Jacobson:
"Many people are still excited by the traditional parts of geology (stratigraphy, structure, Earth history)," Jacobson said. "Opportunities to work with these facets of geology is much greater in the oil and gas industry than in environmental fields."
Jacobson is proud to say that his department "is ahead of many in terms of emphasizing the environmental side," but he also points out that "geologists in the environmental fields spend a substantial amount of time worrying about regulatory issues. My impression is that geologists in the oil industry spend more of their time on the science than on business/regulation."
Nevertheless, Kvale and Chamberlain believe this expansion of traditional thinking in both the camps and university curricula is the way to go -- even if it involves changing students' DNA.
"I think the things that have proven to be the most challenging for our students have been the physical demands of the field work and the difficulty of collecting data and interpreting it," Kvale said. "It seems that many students are great memorizers but have a hard time analyzing and interpreting data.
"Our camp really focuses on less memorization and much more on the data acquisition and interpretation," he said. "We are not a traveling field camp."
As the industry grows (and the profits increase), these field camps will be where many students get their first taste of the real geologic world.
To hear Jacobson tell it, "You can't bring it alive from classroom instruction alone."