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Featured Academic Unit - Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences

Student group at Arches National Park during the 2015 Spring Break field trip to the Colorado Plateau

Office of the ProvostFeb 24, 2016
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We are continuing to feature academic units and highlight how they have aligned with the themes and initiatives in the Academic Plan, Crossing Boundaries. Last month we featured the Department of Art and Graphic Design. This month's featured unit is the Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2015. Interested in having your school, department or program featured? Contact us at

The past few years have been dynamic ones at Pacific. The new strategic plan, Pacific 2020, and the new Academic Plan provided the department of Geological & Environmental Sciences with an unique opportunity to evaluate the department's goals and determine how to best prepare the next generation of students for the future. This process resulted in a newly revised curriculum and a new department name (formerly Earth & Environmental Science) that reflect the department's unique position to address many of the themes in the Academic Plan, including a broadened focus on water and the environment. The Geology and Environmental Science programs were merged into a single major with two distinct concentrations. The new BS in Geological & Environmental Sciences with an Environmental Sciences Concentration is decidedly interdisciplinary in nature, focusing on the underlying natural processes relating to the environment, and understanding and employing the scientific method. The past few years have also brought a welcomed increase in the number of majors and minors - particularly in the geology track - that has led to dynamic and diverse classrooms.  

Last fall the department welcomed its newest faculty member, Dr. Karrigan Börk, who has a truly unique joint appointment between Geological & Environmental Sciences and the McGeorge School of Law. Dr. Börk, along with Dr. Lydia K. Fox, was integral in revising and updating the Environmental Studies curriculum. As an instructor, one of Dr. Börk's goals is the integration of law students into some of his science courses in order to help students from both fields build their communication and interdisciplinary skills. He is teaching Environmental Law for McGeorge and the department in addition to an introductory environmental science course for the department. His research focuses on the interplay of science and law, with the goal of producing scholarship that will be useful to practicing lawyers, judges and policy makers in the environmental field.  

Dr. Kurtis C. Burmeister has had great success integrating multidisciplinary components into his introductory course, Geology of California. From 2011 to 2014, he worked closely with Dr. Raterman (Department of Philosophy) to integrate collaborative classroom lectures and field trip activities exploring ethics with regard to environmental issues, climate change and natural resources. In 2012, Dr. Burmeister developed a multidisciplinary class with Michael Wurtz (Holt-Atherton Special Collections) exploring the geology and human exploration of the Colorado Plateau. This series of lectures, readings and student presentations was built around an extremely popular 8-day field trip through all of the major national parks on the Colorado Plateau. Dr. Burmeister enjoys field research and is currently involved with collaborative projects in southeastern Japan, upstate New York, western Ireland and the Sierra Nevada.  

Associate Professor and department Chair Dr. Laura K. Rademacher has continued her collaborative research on urban water pollution in the San Francisco Bay area, and continues to research the "critical zone" in the Sierra Nevada and the Valles Caldera. She is beginning a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative, interdisciplinary research project in the Great Basin to understand the vulnerability of groundwater resources and endangered species to a changing climate. In the classroom, Dr. Rademacher is participating in a research project with faculty from around the country designed to assess the impact of new course materials that explicitly integrate sustainability, social justice and other challenges into the classroom. At the upper division level, Dr. Rademacher continues to involve students in research through their labs and field trips to gain valuable skills in data collection, analysis and communication. These courses are increasingly interdisciplinary as the number and diversity of students enrolled continues to grow.  

Dr. Lydia K. Fox recently concluded 15+ years as department chair and serves as Director of the Environmental Studies Program. She continues to lead her students in field studies, and has several this year: Yosemite and Owens Valley (fall), Hawaii and the Mojave (spring). Her Environmental Studies capstone course is interdisciplinary through its integration of history, ethics, policy, science, engineering, etc., and covers water in California with an emphasis on the Delta. She has been participating in the Writing in the Disciplines program for the past two years and has significantly increased the amount of writing in her courses to help students learn the material as well as to improve their writing skills. Students in Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology write an NSF-style research proposal as a semester-long project. Students in the Environmental Studies capstone write daily reading summaries/reflections and then write a major research paper. Students in Earth Materials prepare a poster on a topic they have researched (an earth material of economic and/or environmental importance). The posters are presented at an evening poster session and then remain in the hallway for other students to learn from.  

Dr. Eugene Pearson is enjoying his 45th year at Pacific. In addition to updating courses and laboratory exercises, Gene's research on the petrology of the Neroly Sandstone, which crops out on the eastern flank of the Diablo Range, and its correlate, the Mehrten Formation in the Sierra foothills, is ongoing. One of Gene's students Dai Wilson ('14), now a graduate student at Exeter University in London, presented his research project titled "Petrography of the Neroly Formation (Miocene), Diablo Range, San Joaquin County, California" at the 2013 Geological Society of America meeting in Denver, Colorado. Gene continues to be active in the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, serving as Historian. This year he also took on the role of Acting Secretary/Treasurer after the unexpected death of the elected Secretary/Treasurer.  

It's evident from new department name, the extensive curriculum revision and recent joint appointment that the Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences is committed to fostering interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to teaching and research, and supporting Academic Plan themes of water and the environment. They strive to provide their students a enriching mix of research, hands-on field work, along with strengthening necessary skills such as writing, so that their students are successful not only at Pacific but in their chosen fields.

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