Nigerian scholars embrace ‘immersive’ geology

Students ‘Get Back to the Rocks’

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Nigerian geology students came to Montana to visit the rocks. The snow was a bonus. Photo courtesy of Afe Mayowa Lawrence.
Nigerian geology students came to Montana to visit the rocks. The snow was a bonus. Photo courtesy of Afe Mayowa Lawrence.

If the university-sponsored geologic field camp is to survive and prosper, some believe it will only do with an infusion of international geoscience students.

Recently, AAPG, along with Indiana University, did just that.

Eight gifted geology majors from Nigeria were invited to the United States – specifically to the school’s geologic field camp in Montana – to participate in a special kind of geologic experience.

AAPG’s inaugural “Immersion Field Experience,” as the name suggests, introduces students to an intensive program in the geosciences that are often not available in their native countries.

The challenge for many of these exceptional students is that while they have the intelligence and “book smarts” in geologic training, they do not have access to rigorous field learning opportunities.

And that’s where the Immersion Field Experience comes in.

AAPG’s Vision

AAPG, in recognizing the need to help students to “get back to the rocks,” worked with Indiana University to create the first Immersive experience, “Structure, Tectonics and Sedimentary Basin Analysis in the Northern Rocky Mountains,” a 14-day field course for international students.

In the program, AAPG acts as a facilitator between national oil companies and universities in North America and Europe to establish a mechanism whereby students, summer interns or industry employees can enroll in intensive field courses to gain focused hands-on experience with rock properties.

The recently completed field course – one that involved the Nigerian students – is what AAPG sees as the first step toward an ongoing program of short courses, each with a different topical focus (see related story ).

The estimated per student cost of the two-week program was approximately $5,000. This included all lodging, meals and field transportation (but not round-trip travel to Montana).

For that expense of time and money, instructors were hoping the Nigerian students would gain:

  • A better appreciation of actual scale and geometry of a variety of reservoir architectures and products of rock deformation.
  • An enhanced ability to make interpretations from a limited database.
  • Increased self-confidence in integrating a variety of stratigraphic, sedimentological, structural and geophysical information in problem-solving.
  • Improved skills in working as part of a team.

The setting couldn’t have been more perfect for the course – Indiana University’s Geologic Field Station, located in the Tobacco Root Mountain Range within the northern Rocky Mountain province, is considered by many to be among the premier facilities of its kind in North America, and at or near the forefront of teaching geosciences in the field.

Since its construction began in 1949, over 4,500 students from over 200 universities – nearly all in the United States – have enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate-level courses.

Now, the camp’s assets are going global.

‘Cream of the Cream’

When reached onsite to talk about the camp and the Nigerian experience, AAPG member Lee J. Suttner, former director of Indiana University’s Judson Mead Geologic Field Station, is sitting in a cabin, exhausted and exhilarated by both the program and his Nigerian students.

“After just one day in the field,” he said, taking the call in another office so his students could work, “albeit a long and physically as well intellectually challenging one, I can say with no hesitation that the Nigerian students are truly superb in every respect.”

So impressed is Suttner, who is the Robert Shrock Emeritus Professor of Sedimentary Geology at Indiana University, that he says:

“As a teacher, it would be fun to have an academic competition between these eight and the top eight students from the top eight programs in the United States,” Suttner said, visualizing a sort of international “geology bowl.”

“What we’re seeing here,” he added, “is the rigor with which these students were chosen.”

The process began when 50 of the top geology students from the top schools in Nigeria were nominated to study in the U.S. program. Out of those 50, eight were selected to come to Montana.

“This is, in a very real sense, the cream of the cream,” Suttner said. “They are very motivated, work very hard. And I want to emphasize this: They are very, very well prepared.”

Suttner admittedly was unsure what to expect.

“I had no idea what kind of background they would have,” he said. “Frankly, we were nervous ... I had no idea what the Nigerian students would know, or how much to review.

“Within a few hours, though, it was obvious they were as well prepared as any student coming from any of our top-notched universities,” he said. “I am honored and touched to teach them.”

Corporate Support

One of the aspects that made this experience so unique is that the students’ involvement was sponsored by the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists, whose members are made up of some of the company’s petroleum companies – not government money.

Another unique dynamic of the experience: The site in Montana is situated in an area of remarkable structural, tectonic and stratigraphic diversity – unlike anything the Nigerian students would find in their native land.

It is, in fact, the single site where the three major structural regimes that characterize interior western North America converge – basement-cored block up-lifting and supra-crustal fold-thrusting of Laramide age, and Cenozoic extensional (basin and range) faulting.

And, incidentally, while the camp is located in Montana, it is owned and operated by the state of Indiana.

“The state of Indiana owns a part of the state of Montana,” Suttner laughed.

All joking aside, it is a part of the reason that Judson Mead is considered one of the premier stations in America – and one of the reasons it was just chosen by AAPG and the school for the Immersion Field Experience. The difference, Suttner suggests, between a station and a camp is that camps are moved year after year, where the station is fixed.

“We own the property, the facilities,” he said. “Many schools move around. We are one of the few that has one with a permanent facility.”

Suttner, like many associated with geologic field camps and stations, is worried about the future of such camps, citing both the high cost and liability of running them. As such he is trying to get corporate sponsorships.

First, though, he is working on a $3 million endowment campaign (called “Touching the Heart, Inspiring the Mind”) that will help update the facilities and provide scholarship money.

He is convinced that what the camps and stations provide students is invaluable to their geosciences foundation.

“We have had five thousand graduates of this program since it started back in the ’50s,” he said. “My concern is how to preserve it. This is a really critical experience. You can ask geology students what course had the greatest impact on them and I’d venture to say 75 percent would say courses they had in the field.”

You get the sense that one retired university professor would say the same thing.

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