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Academics: Interim courses

Big Sky Geology: Montana Field Experience

geology students in montana

How does interim in May work?

This physical geology course, held in the 2 weeks immediately following spring semester exams, serves as a substitute for the January Interim and the student is not required to be on campus during the January time period. For freshmen who are required to take an on-campus January Interim during their first year, this course can substitute for their second Interim or they may choose to pay extra tuition for the course. You may also take Big Sky Geology as a summer session class and pay applicable tuition (for a 4 credit course) .

Who should apply?

The course is open without prerequisite to all students who might enjoy an unusual, outdoor learning experience. We especially encourage applications from college freshmen and sophomores, and education majors. No prior outdoor or hiking experience is required, but an enthusiastic, positive, and flexible attitude is required to make this course enjoyable for you and your fellow course participants. If you like the outdoors, appreciate hiking, observation, and discovery, are attracted by the challenge of learning in a flexible outdoor environment, and want to see really great geology, this is the course for you.

Even current freshmen can plan to take this course because they will technically be sophomores in May when the course is held. This course may substitute for your second Interim at no extra tuition cost to the student, or the student may choose to pay extra Summer Session tuition to take the course.

How do we get there?

Students will fly from Grand Rapids to Bozeman or Billings and will arrive on Monday for the start of the course. We want to encourage students to fly with the group from GR to Bozeman, or Billings. However, some flexibility in travel arrangements is possible.

Some students may choose to drive private vehicles to the ranch location. However, for students with their own cars, a strict 24-hour no driving policy after arrival at the course location will be enforced during the course for private vehicles. Violation of the no driving policy during the course is considered adequate grounds for dismissal. If you drive, you will probably receive a partial refund since we will not purchase an airline ticket for you.

Pickup for students arriving to the airport will be arranged. Rental vans or mini-vans are used for daily transportation during the course. Students will also be transported back to the airport at the end of the course or returned to the ranch, if needed, to pick up their vehicles.

Location and facilities - Gainey Ranch, Dillon, MT

  • 6000-acre ranch, rich in wildlife and waterfow
  • magnificent view of the Big Hole River and mountains.
  • 25 miles from Dillon (pop. ~5000) with all needed facilities, including a hospital
  • 6 bunkhouses with separate buildings for men and women (mattress provided)
  • separate bath/shower building
  • spacious main lodge for meals and classroom
  • game room: billiards, ping pong, fuzeball
  • softball field/basketball court
  • miles of seldom-used road for walking/jogging

Gainey Ranch is open to us through the generosity of the Gainey family and a desire to use their ranch to provide spiritual nourishment, and an appreciation of God and His good creation. Room and board is provided to us without cost. Our conduct and behavior while guests of the Gaineys must be consistent with the purpose of their ranch. We will likely have small chores to do and chore assignments will be made onsite.

A "typical day"...

On a typical day during the week, breakfast will be at 8 am, followed by devotions and about 3 hours of lecture and lab work. We will break for lunch and leave each day at 1 pm for a field location that exemplifies the topic of the day. We will return from the field at about 5:30 and in time for a 6 pm dinner. No activities are scheduled after dinner. On Sunday we will attend a local church in Dillon, have lunch in town, and have the rest of the day for personal or study activities at the ranch.

Field situations will involve light to moderate hiking in what could be cold, rainy, or even snowy conditions. May and June are normally very pleasant in Montana with temperatures cool at night and in the 60-70’s during the day, but exceptions frequently occur. Be prepared for variable weather and bring a can-do attitude that allows you to enjoy the field experience even when conditions are not perfect.

How will students be graded?

This is 4 credit, graded course that fulfills physical world core. The course begins with 4 required evening lab sessions on Wednesday evenings (6-8pm) in April. Identification of rocks and minerals is stressed in these labs and a graded rock and mineral exam is given on the fourth evening.

Once in Montana, classes will be held each day Monday through Saturday for a total of 12 class days. Each day of the course equates to about a week of normal classroom activity on campus, and the pace of the course will be fast with new topics introduced each day. Students will have about 7 hours each day of geology instruction compared to about 5 hours each week for a campus-based course (lecture plus lab). Students will be encouraged to identify rocks, minerals, and landforms on their own or in groups and share their results during group discussions on the outcrop. Students will be required to keep a field notebook and record their stops and observations. The field experiences will often be free-flowing and students should be prepared to use their own initiative, enthusiasm and interaction to evaluate and discover the field relationships.

In addition to the course work, students may assemble a mineral and rock collection for extra credit, or suggest a project of their own, such as daily annotated sketches of outcrops and geological structures. These projects will be viewed and graded at the end of the course and serve to increase the final grade by one step if done successfully.


Staff will include professors from the Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies department at Calvin. Prof. Ken Bergwerff is the primary instructor. Professor Bergwerff can be reached at, 616-526-6371, or in NH052.


A fee is required to cover airfare, rental vehicles, and other costs of the course. In addition to the fee, students should be prepared to pay for occasional light meals that will be taken on the road (perhaps $30). Several meals, entry fees into parks and monuments, and one or two nights lodging in Yellowstone will be covered by the course fee. Our budget estimate places the course fee at $1300 for 2016. Our room and board at the Gainey Ranch is free of charge, which allows this course to be offered at a relatively low cost. Whatever money is not spent on the course is refunded to you after the course is finished.

Next offered: May 2016

How to apply

1. Go to the off-campus programs (OCP) website and follow the instructions for completing the application. Use the Calvin College Horizons link on the website to access the application.

2. In addition to the online application, visit me (Professor Bergwerff) at NH052 in North Hall and bring a $400 check written to Calvin College. This is your deposit and goes towards the cost of the course. We will review the application and I will ask you a few questions. Can you walk and talk simultaneously? Can you tie your shoes? Are you breathing? Convicted criminal? Any health issues we should know about? And maybe others even harder than these.

3. I will hold the $400 checks till after January so they are not confused with the normal January Interim monies. If you drop out before March 1 you will receive a refund less any expenses incurred to that point (usually very few) and a $40 administration fee. After March 1 there may be no refunds, they say.

4. The applications will be numbered in the order in which they are received. Students are generally accepted on a first come, space available basis.

5. The remaining cost of the Interim will be charged to your account as a "Statement of Miscellaneous Charges" on April 15 and is due by May 1.