ND Geology Field Trip

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The group at Fort Ransom State Park

The end of June, 2018, Kirstin Kempel and I took 14 middle schoolers from North Sargent High School in Gwinner, ND, on a two-day geology field trip around southeast North Dakota. I first had the idea remembering a similar geology trip I had been on as an undergrad at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and thought it would be awesome to introduce kids from where I grew up to geology by showing them what’s in the area where they live. I enlisted my 6th grade teacher and family friend Kirstin Kempel to help and the plan was set into motion over the winter! I spent months planning the trip, using my field guide from NDSU as a template. Kirstin and I recruited students in April and May and we were thrilled when we reached our target of 14 kids. In the weeks leading up to the trip we prepared the menu, planned the days, and got everything ready. On June 27th we loaded up the cars with supplies and kids and headed to Fargo, ND, to start the trip at the NDSU Geological Sciences Department where Jessie Rock had a program ready for us.

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Determining if a rock is limestone

At NDSU, the kids had a fantastic time learning about paleontology, fossils of North Dakota, and sedimentary environments. They got to put together the new T-rex fossil foot puzzle and look at sands from all seven continents under the microscope. But a definite highlight for many was getting to play in the augmented reality sandboxes and see how the shapes they built were translated to a flat topographic map (that and just the fact of playing in a sandbox). The NDSU portion of the trip was an amazing opportunity for kids from a small rural community to experience geology and learning in a university setting with really cool, interactive tools.

Next, we started our driving tour of southeast North Dakota, beginning with the history of glacial Lake Agassiz at the Red River Valley. Stories of mile-thick glaciers, huge lakes, and the relatively young Red River explained why the eastern edge of ND is so very flat. We drove west out of the lake bed and stood on one of Lake Agassiz’s beaches, now expressed as a 20′ escarpment of sand. Then began the glaciated plains, with rolling topography underlain by hundred of feet of till. We saw an esker, kames, more strandlines, and meltwater channels on our way to the Sheyenne River Valley. The kids searched for fossils in the Pierre Shale north of Valley City, ND, before we drove down the scenic Sheyenne Valley and looked for outcrops of till and bentonite beds. That night we camped at Fort Ransom State Park, where many of the kids had their first night of tenting!

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Looking for fossils in the Niobrara

The morning of the second day was spend learning about the Western Interior Seaway of Cretaceous time and searching for fish scales, bones, and oysters in the Niobrara Chalk. This stop was another highlight as we supplied a few rock hammers to aid in the search for fossils. Next we shifted through a gravel pit and learned about the different rock types before driving atop an anamoose for some great views. We ended the tour at the Sheyenne National Grassland, which is in fact the huge delta where the Sheyenne River met Lake Agassiz. Huge sand dunes covered in grasses are everywhere, making this a very distinct landscape from the glacial plains.

Overall, it was a great couple of days that the kids really enjoyed. Many of them even asked if there will be another trip next year! I definitely learned a ton organizing and planning this trip, and could not have done it without Kirstin, Jessie Rock, the parents who lent their suburbans, and the businesses that donated money to make this trip happen (Sargent County Bank and AW Diesel Service).