By Katie Neitz

Visiting Lafayette’s Van Wickle Hall is like traveling in a geological time machine. Extensive rock, mineral, and fossil collections showcase the history of the Earth, helping students better understand the evolution of our planet.

Thanks to the generosity of an alumni donor and the efforts of department faculty and staff, Van Wickle will now be home to two new features that will enhance its educational capabilities and provide more hands-on learning opportunities for students. 

New attraction: cross-section rock wall

A new cross-section rock wall was constructed inside Van Wickle over winter interim. The wall, which stands about 4 feet tall and 20 feet in length, features slices of rocks that represent 1.2 billion years of geologic history. Rocks are arranged from oldest to youngest, and placed as they would be in their original geological orientation on Earth.

The project was a labor of love for several members of the department who collected specimens from 11 different locations between October 2020 and January 2021. Tamara Carley, associate professor of geology, David Sunderlin, associate professor of geology, Jennie Pinho, instrument support specialist, and John Wilson, laboratory coordinator, selected and hauled specimens from a variety of rock formations including Catskill, Shawangunk, and Jacksonburg.  

After retrieving  the rocks, they partnered with Jack Stenlake, a mason from Mount Bethel, Pa., to bring the wall to life.

“We found out that our way of thinking about rocks as a geologist is different from how a mason thinks about the rocks,” Wilson says. “The mason is looking at how best to stack the rocks. But we think about their proper orientation—you need to know which side is ‘up’—how the rock was oriented in the ground. It created instances where we needed to go back to the quarries to gather more samples to get ones that would work for the mason and still have the proper geological orientation.”

Watch a time-lapse video of the project.


Coming soon: rock garden

This spring, construction has begun on an outdoor rock garden on the east side of Van Wickle, facing Colton Chapel. The open-air geological museum will complement the interior wall as it will feature the same rocks used in the wall, giving students an opportunity to study them as full specimens.

large rocks sit outside Van Wickle Hall

Construction of Van Wickle Hall’s rock garden began in April. It’s expected to be completed over the summer.

Wilson says the garden also will feature large-scale “wow” rocks, which will come from a wide array of locations, beyond Pennsylvania. The outdoor feature will work as an extension of the classroom, putting students in easy reach of hands-on learning opportunities.

“It’s very exciting because these features will help students build their geological skills here on campus, right in our backyard,” Wilson says. “When they go into the field as part of one of our remote fieldwork experiences, they’ll be even more prepared.”

The hope is that the garden will become a campus attraction that will educate the entire Lafayette community. Interpretive signage will help visitors navigate the area and invite them to learn more about geology inside Van Wickle.


Categorized in: Alumni, Faculty and Staff, Featured News, Geology, Innovative Teaching and Learning