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Exploring the geology in our own backyard

Karen Grove leads an OLLI class on the geoscience of the Rogue Valley.
Karen Grove says her most popular course explains the local geology and why our landscape looks the way it does.

What entices us to live in the Rogue Valley?

When I moved to Ashland in 2015, it was primarily the abundance of outdoor activities and the rich variety of cultural offerings. As a retired professor (San Francisco State University), I was also pleased to have a four-year university in town, and I’d heard about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SOU for those 50 and older who want to continue expanding their horizons.

After living here for nearly six years, I’ve been delighted by our local OLLI, both as a student and as an instructor.

As a student, I’ve been privileged to learn about Southern Oregon and civil-rights history; travel virtually to exotic countries around the world; figure out the nuts and bolts of estate planning; discuss films featured in our local Ashland Independent Film Festival; explore the ideas behind Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays.

The challenge each term is to choose courses from among the incredibly varied and tantalizing options.

Many people have retired to the Rogue Valley from successful careers in fields such as education, business, finance, science, health care, literature and the arts, and they now share their expertise as OLLI instructors.

OLLI offers more than 100 courses each term at a single annual fee and no per-course tuition. The cost can be kept low because people volunteer their time to teach and to serve on curriculum and governance committees.

As an instructor, I’ve enjoyed sharing my geoscience knowledge with adult students. When I moved here, I wondered — would I miss teaching after decades of teaching and research?

Sure enough, after a year I found myself yearning for interactions with students, for shared explorations into how our planet works, and for the push to stay current that teaching topics to others requires.

Any teacher knows the best way to cement new knowledge is to figure out how to communicate it to others. And so it has been, for me, in the Rogue Valley. The geology of Oregon differs from the geology of California, and teaching OLLI courses has motivated me to learn as much as possible about our local region.

Did you know that we have a 300-million-year-long record of geologic history right here in our backyards?

Not surprisingly, my most popular offering has been “See like a geologist; the landscape around you,” a course that explains the local geology and why our landscape looks the way it does. When taught in person, the course included a field trip to directly observe the evidence of this fascinating history.

Our story starts with volcanic islands colliding with the continent to form the Klamath Mountains west of the valley. Overlying sediments record deposition in an ocean, followed by uplift of the land to become a broad west-facing slope traversed by rivers.

Next, we find a thick sequence of volcanic rocks that spewed from the Grizzly Peak vicinity, when it was one of many volcanoes in the Western Cascades. These early volcanoes “turned off,” and compression across the region caused all the layers to be uplifted, tilted, eroded and exposed for us to see. When eruptions resumed, the volcanoes were located farther east, where they today make up the High Cascade Range that includes Mount Shasta, Mount McLoughlin, Crater Lake and other volcanoes to the north.

In spring 2020 and 2021, the course was moved online. To facilitate learning, I created blog posts for students to read and question-and-answer follow-up sessions via Zoom. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Now these blogs are available to anyone at landscapes-revealed.net. See posts in April-May 2020 for information about Rogue Valley geology. You can also search for geological information about other locations on the West Coast, including Lassen, Yosemite, Lava Beds, Three Sisters, and Mount St. Helens.

Other courses I have taught for OLLI are “Billions of years of climate change on Earth,” “Geology of national parks in the western U.S.,” “See like a geologist: the landscapes of Patagonia,” and “Basics of plate tectonics.” What has been so rewarding about teaching these courses is the incredible curiosity and interest of the participants, their excellent questions, and their contributions to class based on their own varied experiences.

It’s all the fun aspects of teaching, without the unsavory exams and grading parts. What participants seem to like best is my passion for geology and my enthusiasm to share this knowledge with others. Come join us at OLLI to learn and, if interested, to teach, too.

Karen Grove is professor emerita at San Francisco State University, where she taught classes in earth, ocean and climate sciences, and with her students studied the recent tectonic evolution of the Bay Area.