Earth and Ocean Sciences 181S: The American Southwest

Peter Haff

Peter Haff. Credit: Les Todd

Fall break, with its potentially chilly temperatures, isn't the best time to head to the beach. But how about the desert?

In October, Peter Haff, professor of geology, led students enrolled in "The American Southwest" to California's Mojave Desert, where they spent a week camping out and learning about the region's natural history. The class is one of the field-trip courses offered by the department of earth and ocean sciences.

Field-trip courses have several advantages over their more traditional counterparts, Haff says. They allow students to experience course material firsthand, foster deeper relationships between faculty members and students, and encourage the group to come together as a team.

"And they're fun," he adds. "Not all classes are fun."

Before the class heads out into the field, each student chooses two or three topics from a list of twenty-five that correspond with geological processes and features they are likely to witness on the trip. These range from sand-dune fields to lava flows to Death Valley's Badwater basin.

Haff guides them to relevant scientific journals, and they follow these leads, conducting research and periodically making presentations to the class about what they are finding.

Once in the field, students serve as "local experts," Haff says. "If we see wind ripples, we'll turn to the student who studied wind ripples and ask, 'What's going on here?' "

Because students come from a wide variety of disciplines—non-majors often make up more than half of the class—Haff says he finds that each class tends to provide new insights. On one recent trip, for example, an art-history major spoke at length about the quality of the desert light.

Grading is fairly subjective, but Haff has found that students almost always rise to the occasion. The format "puts pressure on the students. They have to perform in front of other students, and they don't want to embarrass themselves."

He emphasizes the importance of observation, of noting and appreciating the rich details of any setting. In other classes, he's been known to lead students on short walking trips around campus, asking them to write down what they see, doing this again and again, and gaining a new layer of rich detail with every pass.

A physicist by training, Haff first fell for the desert while working as a researcher in the Los Angeles area. He would frequently drive out to spend days alone hiking, exploring, or just thinking. "There's something special about the desert, something spiritual," he says. "I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the great religions of the world came out of desert regions.

"The large distances, the light, the shades of color. It's possible to really be alone." He pauses, his thoughts returning to the topic at hand. "Well, not in this class, I guess."


Peter Haff earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Virginia. He served in postdoctoral research posts at the California Institute of Technology, the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Yale University before joining Duke's civil-engineering department in 1988. Once at Duke, he received a second appointment, in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Haff's current research focuses on the impact of technology on Earth. He studies technology as a physical phenomenon, "the next phase of the geological evolution of Earth," rather than an artificial disruption.


Earth and Ocean Sciences 11: "The Dynamic Earth"


Scientific journal articles


Multiple oral presentations
Serve as "local expert" on trip
Final project

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