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home : education : schools September 20, 2017

8/1/2017 5:22:00 PM
Sisters a laboratory for Tenn. geology class
Led by Prof. Warner Cribb (far right), aspiring vulcanologists from Middle Tennessee State University learn about the volcanoes of Central Oregon. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
Led by Prof. Warner Cribb (far right), aspiring vulcanologists from Middle Tennessee State University learn about the volcanoes of Central Oregon. photo provided

By Craig Eisenbeis

For students interested in learning about geology in the Oregon Cascades, one solution is to sign up for a geology course - at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU)! For the past 20 years, Warner Cribb, Professor of Geology and Chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at MTSU has been leading his students on geological expeditions in the Cascade mountains.

Much of the course work in Prof. Cribb's classes revolves around vulcanology, and volcanoes are in short supply in Tennessee. So, for aspiring geologists, it makes sense to go where the action is; and, for geologists everywhere, the Pacific Northwest is like a living laboratory of geologic and volcanic wonders.

"The class came to be back in the 1990s when I took a job at MTSU after finishing my doctorate in geology at Ohio State," said Cribb. "I wrote my dissertation on Mt. Hood, and so wanted a way to introduce MTSU students to the field study of volcanoes. It started as a one-week class, but over the years has grown to three weeks."

The course offers students learning opportunities that simply cannot be experienced any other way. Last week, Cribb's class hiked to South Matthieu Lake, in the very shadow of the North Sister, one of Central Oregon's most impressive volcanoes. As some of his pupils enjoyed a refreshing swim in the mountain lake, Cribb commented, "Most of these students have never seen a volcano before. After they go back, they are better students for having been here."

Graduate assistant Tyler Smith echoed Cribb's feelings about the importance of seeing geology in the real world, not just in textbooks. "The best geologists are the ones who have seen the most rocks!" he said. Smith, from Franklin, Tennessee, is immersed in graduate studies that focus on environmental geosystems.

One student on the trip who had seen a volcano before is Emily Cunningham, of Knoxville, Tennessee. This is her second trip to Oregon, and she is doing an undergraduate thesis on three volcanic buttes between Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. She was clearly enthusiastic about this summer's learning opportunity and her ongoing studies of Olallie, Clear Lake, and Pinhead Buttes in the northern part of Oregon's Cascade mountains.

Of these, Olallie Butte is the largest of the three. At more than 7,000 feet in elevation, it is also the tallest volcano between Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, the two highest volcanoes in Oregon.

Olallie Butte is a shield volcano. Shield volcanoes are formed from highly liquid lava flows rather than explosive ones. As a result, a shield volcano typically has gently sloping flanks, giving it the appearance of a shield lying on the ground. Olallie Butte, however, is an exception in that is unusually steep-sided. During the high-country snow season, Olallie Butte is the snow-covered knob-like peak visible north of Mt. Jefferson. The peak is mostly on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

Referred to as a geology field course, this educational program gives MTSU students the opportunity to earn undergraduate credits toward their degrees. The three-week course started in Portland; and the class's first stop was at Mt. Hood, followed by visits to the areas surrounding Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters. Those visits were to be followed by a stop at Newberry National Volcanic Monument and, of course, Crater Lake National Park. The students have had the additional experience of camping amidst the very mountains they came to study.

The course will continue with a trip to Mount St. Helens, where the students will have the unique opportunity to observe that volcano's more recent activity and have the opportunity to climb the south rim of the mountain. The last stop on the vulcanology tour will be at Mount Rainier, and the students will have one last day in the Northwest in Portland before returning to Tennessee.

MTSU was established in 1911 as a teachers college in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Today, the school is organized into eight colleges that serve more than 20,000 undergraduate students. Additionally, a graduate college offers programs in nearly 40 fields.

For his part, Prof. Cribb seems to have a special affinity for Sisters, and he indicated that he hopes to log even more Sisters time in the future. He also related an interesting encounter while visiting his daughter, a senior - and geology major, of course - at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He was wearing a Sisters T-shirt, and a Vanderbilt student came up to tell him that she graduated from Sisters High School.

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