An Integrative Physical Geography Field Experience: Mapping the Soils, Vegetation, and Landforms of a Part of SW Michigan

Joseph P. Hupy, Stephen P. Aldrich, Randall J. Schaetzl, Pariwate Varnakovida, Eugenio Y. Arima, Juliegh R. Bookout, Narumon Wiangwang, Annalie L. Campos and Kevin P. McKnight

Students in a graduate seminar at Michigan State University produced a series of detailed vegetation, soils, and landform maps of a 1.5 square mile (3.9 km2) study area in SW Lower Michigan. The learning outcomes (maps) and skill development objectives (sampling strategies and various GIS applications) of this field-intensive, mapping experience were driven by the assumption that students learn and understand relationships among physical landscape variables better by mapping them than they would in a “classroom-based” experience. The group-based, problem-solving format was also intended to foster collaboration and comradery. The study area lies within a complex, interlobate moraine. Fieldwork involved mapping in groups of two or three, as well as soil and vegetation sampling. Spatial data products assembled and used in the project included topographic maps, a DEM, aerial photographs, and NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) soil maps. Most of the soils are dry and sandy, with the main differentiating characteristic being the amount of, and depth to, subsurface clay bands (lamellae) or gravelly zones. The presettlement (early 1830's) vegetation of the area was oak forest, oak savanna, and black oak “barrens”. Upland sites currently support closed forests of white, black, and red oak, with a red maple, dogwood, and sassafras understory. Ecological data suggest that these oak forests will, barring major disturbance, become increasingly dominated by red maple. This group-based, problem-solving approach to physical geography education has several advantages over traditional classroom-based teaching, and could also be successfully applied in other, field-related disciplines..