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Are rocks boring? Not at geology field camp

NEVER tell Tom Dorman that rocks are dull. It's July. The Montana sun beats down on his back. Setting aside rock samples , he pauses to gulp water from a canteen. By midafternoon the water will be gone. If he needs a drink then, it will be too bad. He has been at this routine since the beginning of June. There are three weeks and many more miles to go.

Mr. Dorman, a geology student at the State Univerity of New York (SUNY) here in Stony Brook, is recalling summer field camp, which combines geological fieldwork with the rigors of a survival course, or so it seems to many of the students who take part. The Montana camp he attended, one of the most prestigious in the United States, is sponsored by Indiana University.

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Peter Bretsky, a geologist and professor at SUNY, says, ''Fieldwork is fairly essential. Most geological work, whether you go into teaching, museum work, an oil company, or government surveys, has a data base out there in the rocks. Even if your work will be laboratory-oriented, there has to be some sense of where to gather raw data. And if you go to work on a government survey team, you'll have to just get out there and map right away.''

Mapmaking is the heart of field camp, and a student needs the skill whether heading for a job or graduate school. ''Employees and grad schools will both want a student to have been slogging around in the wild for four to six weeks,'' says the Yale-educated Bretsky. ''Field ecology is a fundamental way of looking at the world you can't get from a lab.'' He adds that a student who can't cut field camp would do well to consider another discipline altogether.

With their rugged terrain, the Tobacco Root Mountains in Montana, site of the Indiana University camp, are ideal. From the campsite, some 60 or so students (roughly half of whom are usually female) leave daily at dawn for their work. The farthest site is an hour-and-a-half drive, the nearest right outside their door. At day's end the exhausted students gratefully devour dinner, then study or attend lectures.

''Since the basics is making maps,'' says Dorman, ''that first week they hold you by the hand and take you through the field. You need to be able to identify all the types of rock and draw them on the maps.''

Some schools prepare students quite thoroughly for this; others, not so much. Peter Bretsky says, ''Cal Tech starts students straight away on fieldwork before they ever get near a camp. Here at Stony Brook, we take them on weekend field trips in preparation.''

Indiana's camp is just one of many to choose from. No student is bound to go to his own school's camp. Which camp to attend often depends on the curriculum, but there are financial considerations as well. Field camp can run up to $1,500, not including transportation, but scholarships are available, and the equipment needed can often be used in later fieldwork.

''It's not as easy in the field as it is in the lab, though,'' says Bretsky. ''It's cold and rainy, and you wish you weren't there, and the rocks look a lot different from the cut specimens you saw in a warm, dry lab.''

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Rocks of another sort also beckoned the students in Montana: Some panned for gold in their spare time. ''Nobody got rich, though,'' says Dorman. Students may stilldream of lucrative oil company positions. ''You never know what kind of job you'll get,'' says Bretsky, ''or which disciplines you'll need.''

Before the students in Montana will have a chance to forget, they will be out there mapping. ''The course gets more and more intensive,'' Dorman says, ''until the final two days, when they throw you out on the field and say, 'Do it!' Hey, no guts, no glory. That's the camp motto.''

When the final map is made, field camp is over and most students then choose graduate school or look for jobs. Under sweeping Montana skies, all have had a bit of ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' in miniature: they have traveled to the mysterious Devils Tower, encountered rattlesnakes, and gazed in awe at dinosaur remains.

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