Geology at Bates

With four professors and an average of a dozen majors each year, the geology department is a close-knit group.

The Geology Club is very active, sponsoring informational and social events throughout the year. Students often accompany faculty members to professional meetings, and informal, spontaneous gatherings are frequent. Few undergraduate programs offer this intimate level of involvement and mentoring by faculty, and few offer the opportunities for research. We believe this is the best way to prepare leaders in the field.

Short Term

The five-week Short Term units each spring are ideal for off-campus, intensive fieldwork. You might go to the American Southwest — New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah — to learn techniques for geological mapping and field methods. There, the results of volcanic activity are everywhere, and rock formations that you might have seen before in textbooks become even more powerful and awe-inspiring observed firsthand. In fact, the effect has persuaded many first-year students to become geologists.

If a colder climate is more appealing, you might choose to help with research in the arctic. In a study that deals with climatic changes going back to the last Ice Age, students prepare geologic maps, and collect and analyze water and sediment samples from lakes and marine environments. Or you might go to Scotland, a country of great geologic diversity and the birthplace of geology. There, our students map and examine the geology at classic locations and study world-famous outcrops of rock that preserve nearly three billion years of the Earth’s geologic history.

Senior research

The course work provides the tools and skills needed to complete a research project and thesis required of all geology majors in their senior year. A two-semester endeavor, this independent research project is based on field and/or laboratory investigation. Topics that have environmental implications have become increasingly popular. Recently, one student studied erosion on the lake that is the water supply for the local community; another analyzed the sediment record for the last 10,000 years on the lake, showing changes in the climate; another delineated the boundaries of an old landfill in the community.

Summer research

There are numerous opportunities for summer research projects. Grants are available to fund independent study, or you might work on a faculty member’s project. This year, Bates students worked on projects in the White Mountains of NH, Coastal Maine, and the Norwegian arctic. One of our students was hired this year by a local community to study the quality of the city’s water.


The geology department’s equipment holdings are extensive. A scanning electron microscope with EDS — energy dispersive X-ray analysis system — shows the chemical makeup of a mineral, giving far more detailed information than an optical microscope. The automated sedimentology lab, used not only by students but by other geologists from nearby states and other parts of Maine, contains various instruments that analyze the physical makeup of sediment in cores drawn from lake bottoms. The information gives clues as to global climatic changes.

Our department also has equipment that can determine the presence of elements like copper and lead in water at levels of parts per billion. The ICP — inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer — gives information about the factors that control water quality.

Two of the newest pieces of equipment are oceanographers’ tools that are on the leading edge of technology. A 300-pound, egg-shaped “fish,” called a sub-bottom profiler, is towed behind a boat that contains three boxes of electronic gear. The pulses of energy down sent down through the water by the fish are reflected differently by different layers of sediment on the bottom. Results are then recorded for analysis and presented on a color monitor on deck of the research boat.

Another oceanographer’s tool, the SeaCat, is a package of instruments in a metal cage, which can measure depth, salinity, and light transmission of the water. It is capable of taking readings every half second, which can then be downloaded to a computer for analysis and graphing.