Before Jahallah "Jay" Simmons begins inspecting the rocks under his feet in the lower Colestin Valley, he carefully checks the area for things that slither.

Before Jahallah "Jay" Simmons begins inspecting the rocks under his feet in the lower Colestin Valley, he carefully checks the area for things that slither.

"I do have a little fear and apprehension of rattlesnakes," acknowledged the senior from Montclair State University in New Jersey just a few dozen miles out of New York City.

"There are rattlesnakes out here — we've crossed paths with a few," he added. "Every evening when I get home, I'm just happy I've gone through another day of not getting bit."

Simmons, whose temporary home is a dorm at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, is one of 30 college students from across the nation attending SOU's four-week geology/hydrology summer field camp which ends in mid-July. The students were studying sandstone formations in the lower Colestin Valley the first week, then will progress north, stopping at places such as Little Butte Creek in Jackson County and studying the lava rock in the Crater Lake caldera.

"For many, this is a real challenge because they haven't had much field experience," observed Jad D'Allura, a newly retired SOU geology professor. "But they are doing well."

Like Simmons, all of the students are hard-science majors more than willing to step around an occasional buzzworm such as the one they spotted along the banks of Cottonwood Creek near Hilt. Seniors or graduate students all, they hail from colleges throughout the nation: Boston University, Indiana State University, University of Cincinnati, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M, University of Wisconsin, Pacific Lutheran University and others.

"We had to turn away 40 students — we can't take everybody who applies," said D'Allura, 64, who retired from SOU this spring and is now working on a contract basis.

Former SOU professor Bill Elliott, 37, now chairman of geology and physics at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, comes back each summer to join D'Allura in teaching the course. Although a similar summer class was first taught at the school in 1979, its current permutation began in 1997. SOU's geology department has been melded into the environmental studies department.

"I like teaching field geology in Southern Oregon and Northern California because of the diversity of the geology here," Elliott said. "There is a lot of different geology, a lot of different areas to take students within just a 20- to 30-minute drive of Ashland. You can show students things most of them have only seen in textbooks."

In the Colestin Valley, the students were helping to develop a geological map that includes sandstone around 100 million years old, D'Allura said.

"They are measuring the orientation of the rocks that are dipping or slanted towards the northeast as the result of the Klamath Mountains being uplifted," he explained. "One of things they will try to do is determine how much of the old paleoenvironment is represented by the sedimentary structures here."

Montclair State senior Deepa Shah, 24, who is majoring in both geology and physics, took over where the professor left off.

"We are measuring the strike and dip to see how the bedding is aligned," she said. "Basically, that will tell us which way the whole formation is dipping and oriented."

"If it is striking northwest, it is a contact," added Simmons, 28, who is a double major in biology and geology with a minor in chemistry. "Whereas, if it is striking northeast, it is a fault."

As the name suggests, the former is a contact between two different geological masses while the latter refers to a shift caused by a movement such as an earthquake, he noted.

Shah is beginning her graduate studies this fall, furthering her studies in paleomagnetism. She plans to teach upon completing her doctorate.

"One of the reasons we are here is it is a requirement for our school," she said of taking an accredited summer field camp. "We wanted to come out West. This is a school (SOU) we really wanted to come to."

"There are other field camps in the East but we've already done a lot of mapping there," observed Simmons, who will complete his undergraduate degree requirements in the fall term, then pursue geoscience in grad school. "We wanted to see different topography."

Council Bluffs, Iowa, resident Elizabeth Madsen, 21, a geology major at the University of Northern Iowa where she is an incoming senior, was checking out an Oregon fence lizard that was perched on her finger.

"We're just hanging out, waiting to start a geology project," she said.

Paul Woodward, 22, a recent geology graduate from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, developed his interest in rocks as a youngster in northern Oregon.

"As a kid, I used to go down to Cannon Beach and Seaside," he said. "I'm an agate hunter and love to rock climb, too. I've just got an affinity for rocks."

Geology allows him to do detective work in the outdoors, said Daniel Wedding, 24, a senior at the University of Southern Indiana. He plans a career in "geofluids" which, he explained, will take him into petroleum geology or hydrogeology.

"Rocks tell a story," he said. "They definitely tell a story of history that most people don't understand or can't interpret. With geology, you can investigate and figure out what is going on and what has happened."

Like Simmons, Tarique Islam, 25, a senior majoring in geoscience at Montclair State, is also adjusting to the wildlife in the West. He was born and raised in lower Manhattan which, he is quick to observe, doesn't offer much in the way of wildlife.

"One day I had a bad knee so Josh Harris (teaching assistant) told me we could go around," Islam said. "That's when we ran into the rattlesnake, which I actually thought was a jackrabbit. We had just seen a rabbit run past so I thought it was rustling in the bushes."

Turned out the rustling was a rattlesnake buzzing angrily.

"Josh stopped me and said, 'No, that's a rattlesnake,' "Islam said. "I said, 'Oh, crap.' So we went around it. It was the first time I've ever seen a rattlesnake — it was pretty big."

Yet that hasn't deterred him from his quest to uncover the science of rocks.

"Ever since I was a kid I've been a science geek — I've always loved science, everything about it," Islam said. "When I went into high school, I had a fantastic science teacher."

Back among the rocks, he marvels at the difference between his native Manhattan and the state of Jefferson.

"There are glacial rocks in Central Park — really nice," he said. "But you don't see much in the city, just buildings and cars. One of the things I really appreciate about Oregon is the fact you can see the geology.

"And you can actually break stuff out here," he added of cracking open rock specimens. "In New York, you'd get yelled at."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.