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Earth Unbound

Stretch program celebrates 40 years

Legend has it that the "Stretch," the Earth sciences department's off-campus program, got its name from a 1960s television ad for a girdle.

Joel Byersdorfer
Joel Byersdorfer, a second-year Earth sciences graduate student, leaps down a bentonite slope on Sheep Mountain, north of Greybull, Wyo., during the 2005 Stretch program. (photo by Nathan Hamm)

"The commercial touted a three-way stretch for better control," says Leslie Sonder, associate professor of Earth sciences. "Since the program initially involved three courses or segments, the 'three-way stretch' nickname was adopted and then just shortened."

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary as an off-campus program, the Stretch is distinctive, according to Sonder. While other colleges and universities offer a four- to six-week summer field camp for their geology or Earth science students, Dartmouth's annual program is more comprehensive and intense. Students embark on a nine-week adventure each fall that takes them to numerous Western locales for field study. The 2005 "Stretchies," for example, worked in Wyoming, Utah, California, Nevada, and Arizona. The mission is to introduce students to various techniques of and approaches to fieldwork, including mapping, hydrology, geochemistry, and geophysics.

Sonder, who has taught on 16 Stretches, recalls that in October 1999, after she had finished her talk on seismic hazards, the Hector Mines earthquake occurred.

"We all felt it during the last night of my segment in Las Vegas," she says. "It was a real-world, live example of how the Earth works."

Sonder also emphasizes that, in addition to the scholarly value of the Stretch, the students gain a great deal from each other, and from interacting with graduate students and faculty. And, she says, the faculty enjoy it, too. "As geologists, this is, in a sense, a return to our natural habitat."

Jon Kroft '07, Johannes Thum '07, Benjamin Bostick, and Cynthia Chen
(left to right) Jon Kroft '07, Johannes Thum '07, Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Benjamin Bostick, and Earth sciences graduate student Cynthia Chen at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park in 2005. (photo courtesy Benjamin Bostick)

Brian Dade, assistant professor of Earth sciences, adds, "When studying the Earth, we learn about our natural environment, pick up analytical and professional skills, and develop the perspective and confidence needed to address real-world problems with imperfect data. The Stretch is all that-we learn the stories behind some of the great geologic wonders of the American West, provide an opportunity to develop a mobile, close-knit community of faculty and students, and have some serious fun along the way."

Iona Woolmington '07, a 2005 Stretchie, is a studio art major now considering a double major with Earth sciences.

"The Stretch changed the way I view a landscape, which has implications for my work in art," she says. "I do a lot of plein-air painting [in the open air], and I carried a sketchbook and paints with me throughout the program."

Since 1966, more than 800 students have participated in the Stretch. Alumni support for the program comes through the Richard E. Stoiber 1932 Fund for Geological Field Exploration and the Frances Ann and Charles C. Dickinson Jr. 1928 Memorial Fund. Alumni themselves can sometimes be found out in the field with the students, as guest lecturers or as dinner hosts.

"The Stretch has such a legacy that we are now encountering second generation Stretchies," says Sonder. "It's a great tradition."


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Last Updated: 7/24/18