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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?

We are looking especially for college freshmen and sophomores who enjoy the outdoors and welcome an unique outdoor field experience. 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.

How do we get there?

Most students fly from Grand Rapids to Bozeman and arrive on the Sunday preceding the start of the course. Other students may arrive by air to Bozeman from different locations or may choose to drive to the ranch location. If students drive, there is a strict 24-hour no driving policy after arrival at the course location. Violation of the no driving policy during the course is considered adequate grounds for dismissal from the course.

Pickup for students arriving to the Bozeman 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 Bozeman 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 but bring a sleeping bag)
  • 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. 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 will be asked to choose one of several special topics. These topics are still being developed but will likely include the options of assembling an identified and documented mineral and rock collection of perhaps 20 specimens, or assembling daily annotated sketches of outcrops and geological structures. These projects will be viewed and graded at the end of the course and can form the basis for personal teaching collections.


Staff will include professors from the geology, geography, and environmental sciences department at Calvin. Dr. Gerry Van Kooten and Dr. Ralph Stearley will be the primary staff for the 2012 field course. Other guest instructors may participate, depending on personal circumstances and course needs.


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 $40). Several meals, entry fees into parks and monuments, and one nights lodging in Yellowstone will be covered by the course fee. Our budget estimate for 2012 places the course fee at $1200. A refund will be made to students if significant funds remain unspent.

Next offered: May 2013

How to apply

1. Go to the off-campus programs (OCP) website and print an application for an off campus Interim.

Be sure to answer every question on the application. Bring this application to Professor Ralph Stearley. Applications will be accepted until the class is filled.

2. Print one or two recommendation forms from the OCP website as these must accompany the application.

The recommendations are normally from professors at Calvin, but if you are a freshman and feel you don't know any professors, a recommendation from a high school teacher will be acceptable.

3. Bring the application and recommendation(s) to Prof. Stearley's office, North Hall 071, and he will review the application and will ask you a few questions. Can you walk and talk simultaneously? Can you tie your shoes? Are you breathing? And maybe others.

4. Also bring a check for $400 as a nonrefundable deposit towards your expenses. Prof. Stearley will hold the checks until early January so they are not confused with the January interim monies. If you drop out before March 1, you will receive a refund less the expenses incurred to that point and a $40 administration fee. After March 1, there are no refunds.

5. Prof. Stearley will send the applications to the Registrar (or maybe ask you to drop it off). The check and recommendations stay with Prof. Stearley.

6. The remaining cost of the interim course will be charged to your miscellaneous account on April 15, and due by May 1.