Down to earth: NU geologists work
the globe for class material © Nov. 9, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Prof. Dave Westerman and an associate atop Italy's Monte Capanne.

submitted photo Prof. Dave Westerman and a colleague survey the scenery from Italy’s Monte Capanne.

So you show up to geology class, and there’s your professor, droning on and on about rocks. Class ends—finally—and he shuffles back to his office, where he practically lives. He buries his nose in a massive, dusty textbook, from which he’ll scour out the next 10 quiz questions.

The Norwich experience?

Not quite.

Meet Dr. David Westerman and Dr. Richard Dunn, two Norwich professors involved in cutting-edge research around the globe. These accomplished geologists are getting their hands dirty, working in the field, so they can bring first-hand knowledge back to their students. That’s not all, however. Westerman and Dunn actively involve students in hands-on learning research projects, across the Atlantic as well as right here in Vermont.

“There’s an old quote from a century ago,” said Westerman, director of student research at Norwich, “that the best geologist is the one who’s seen the most rocks. And there’s a lot of truth to that. So being in all those areas and realizing that the planet behaves according to certain laws and rules that govern the behavior of the earth—it’s very, very eye-opening and informative. That brings a perspective back to the classroom.”

Westerman spent last year on sabbatical, literally all over the world. He worked and traveled in Switzerland, Italy, the Baltics, Scandinavia, England, Ireland, Portugal, France, Australia and New Zealand. For many years he has studied in Italy, through a relationship he has developed with the University of Pisa. He’s brought students with him across the ocean to research and study.

When I’m invited on a project, I say, ‘yes, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get a Norwich student involved.’

~ Prof. Richard Dunn

Not every student has the time or resources to study overseas. That’s no problem—Westerman said Vermont provides fertile grounds for learning opportunities. He’s waiting to hear back on a grant proposal to conduct a detailed study of Vermont’s 380-million-year-old granite. This endeavor will be done in collaboration with Middlebury College and Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Numerous students will be involved.

“We’re trying to figure out how you get a relatively small region like the northern half of the state of Vermont—the Northeast quarter of the state is filled with granites, and they’re very isolated systems,” Westerman said.

Students and other researchers will perform detailed chemical analyses of the rocks, and use very precise radiometric age dating to determine exactly how old Vermont’s granites are.

Dunn shares Westerman’s passion for exploring, especially in the Mediterranean. He has worked in Portugal, Israel and Greece, countries rich in ancient history. But what does history have to do with geology?

A lot, Dunn says. Instead of going on expeditions solely with other geologists, Dunn joins teams of archeologists, sociologists, art historians and geophysicists to explore sites. He provides geological expertise on a dig. Say an archeologist comes across evidence of a port, but the evidence is found inland. Dunn can use his geological knowledge to determine whether or not land that is silted up today was a port or estuary thousands of years ago. He can help an archeological team put the site into the paleo-environmental perspective by creating a picture of what the landscape may have looked like at the time.

Photo of Prof. Dave Westerman working with a student in Vermont.

submitted photo Prof. Dave Westerman working on an outcrop with a colleague from the Portuguese Geological Survey in his field area on the Portuguese coast.

And he brings in Norwich students to help.

“I think all of the projects I’m working on or worked on since I’ve been at Norwich have had students involved,” Dunn said. “When I’m invited on a project, I say, ‘yes, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get a Norwich student involved.’ Partly, because it’s a great opportunity for a student to go to some place like the Mediterranean. And we design some sort of smaller research project for them to do, something they can handle in a 10-week summer of research.”

When Dunn is back in the classroom, students benefit from the firsthand knowledge. He works information from his expeditions into his curriculum and students consistently point to that as a benefit in professor evaluations.

Dunn said first-year students often come to class wanting to know black-and-white answers to scientific questions. His students are stunned when he tells them that in many cases, there aren’t black-and-white answers yet, and instead he teaches students how to think about how to approach the issues. When he tells students that all the questions in science aren’t answered—hence why study and research is still so important—they see learning in a different way. Instead of the teacher rattling off facts, the teacher shows how students can go about finding answers. Just like he has to do on his expeditions.

Both Dunn and Westerman say Norwich provides a great amount of faculty and student support—both through encouragement and financial means.

“Norwich does a great job helping out with that,” Dunn said. The school, he said, has made a big effort to tell faculty about monies available for student research projects. And projects increase every year.

As Dunn put it, “Prospective students coming in looking for a place to have that opportunity to research that’s beyond the classroom, they’re definitely coming to the right place at the right time.”