School of Rock

It begins as any other science lab would, with attendance. Luckily, everyone is here, and dressed for the weather. As you look around the musty science lab, no one seems very excited. Typical undergraduates in

It begins as any other science lab would, with attendance. Luckily, everyone
is here, and dressed for the weather.

As you look around the musty science lab, no one seems very excited. Typical undergraduates in a typical science core class. What’s the point of being excited? It’s just another geology lab, right?


“We’ve been doing the campus rock tour for about 10 years now,” says professor David E. Grandstaff, chair of Temple’s geology department. “The reason we did it initially was to raise people’s consciousness about the rocks that make up Temple.”

All three classifications of rocks – metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary
– are present on Temple’s campus within different buildings and structures. As a part of the Geology 50 core curriculum,
teaching assistants form a lab exercise
for their students structured around a tour of Main Campus which focuses on all of its geologic features.

Grandstaff speaks softly from behind his white moustache and thick bifocals in an office piled halfway to the ceiling with research documents, topographic and geologic maps, animal skeletons and, of course, many different varieties of rocks. It feels like a Discovery Channel documentary.

“People here at Temple, since many come from an urban background, and particularly if they haven’t done a lot of traveling, are not used to thinking about rocks like this,” Grandstaff says. “I thought that our buildings have so many different kinds of rocks in them. It’s a shame that people don’t go around noticing
them more often.”

Which brings us back to science lab. Holly Sobocinski, a graduate teaching assistant in the geology department, begins to lead her students out of the laboratory and into the vast world of campus’ geologic formations.

The first stop is a marble wall in Beury Hall before the students even have a chance to mosey down the stairs.

“Can anyone tell me what rock this is?” Sobocinski asks. There is some thumb twiddling and uneasy looks toward the ground as students wait for someone to come up with the save.

“Granite?” one student unwillingly proposes.

“No. But almost,” Sobocinski says.Another pupil takes a poke: “Breccia?”

“Nope. It’s marble,” Sobocinski reveals.

“Remember, it’s formed from the metamorphism of limestones. We just talked about it last week.”

There it is, right there in front of them – not in a book or magazine or on a Web site – but holding up the north side of Beury Hall. Through Sobocinski’s insight at that moment, campus transforms into a great big science lab itself, one that every student constantly has access to.

As the students file down the stairs toward
Liacouras Walk, some take the time to brush their hands over the glossy marble wall, exchanging a few wide-eyed looks of interest and satisfaction. This is precisely what Grandstaff was aiming for in his conception of the geologic tour 10 years ago.

On a sunny day, take note of older campus
buildings such as Shusterman and Sullivan
halls. The reason they shimmer when the sun’s rays bounce off their faces is due to the metamorphic rock, Wissahickon schist, that forms each building’s exterior walls.

Crystals present within the schist are formed under incredible amounts of heat and pressure.

“Most of the rocks in Temple’s older buildings are Wissahickon schist,” Grandstaff said. “It is the main metamorphic rock in the Philadelphia area.”

Thus, a little rock goes a long way, historically speaking.

“You learn a lot about the age of buildings
through their geologic structures,” says Jim Mikochik, another graduate teaching assistant in the geology program. “When you recognize features such as schist, you know that those buildings tend to be the older ones on campus. As for Gladfelter
and Anderson Hall, you realize that limestone is not the best thing to build buildings out of.”

But it’s pretty cool when acid rain reacts with it.

“Gladfelter is made from limestone that is constantly being eaten away by acid rain,” Grandstaff says. “That’s sedimentary rock.”

Sobocinski points out the stalactites and stalagmites for her students as they stand in the dark cave formed underneath the stairs of Gladfelter Hall. At this point she has captured every student’s undivided attention.

Sobocinski explained that they are formed by differential weathering – a result of acid rainwater mixing with the limestone in the matrix of the stairs. Thus, a virtual cave is formed.

“The stalactites and stalagmites are really
amazing,” Grandstaff said. “It’s amazing to hear people talk about acid rain and global warming, but to actually see an example of that right there in front of you is the neatest thing.”

It sure is.

Sobocinski and her groupies arrive at the steps outside of 7-Eleven on Liacouras Walk.

“Granite,” one student shouts, proud of his wittiness and keen observation. “That’s an igneous rock.”

Sobocinski seems shocked. “Very good,” she says.

Igneous rock is formed from magma inside the earth as it intrudes into sedimentary
rock underneath the earth’s surface, or when it erupts through volcanoes. Like marble, granite is a rather common building structure.

“Over at Conwell Hall, the main administration building, the steps are kind of dished down, and you can see that generations of students have kind of worn that rock away,” Grandstaff says with a foreshadowing grin. “I can’t help but to think of all those students going in there to pay their bills. They wear them right away. You hear about that stuff in monasteries in Europe where it’s been going on for thousands of years. But it’s really neat to see right on campus here.”

But it’s not just the Geology 50 students that benefit from going on tour.

“I tried to keep my tour very informal for the students,” Mikochik says. “I decided to go wherever the tour took us. And that way, even I was learning new things through the tour as well. It’s the best we can do in this area, so we’re lucky to have a campus like this.”

As Sobocinski brings her tour to a close, students – all in true undergraduate fashion – peek over each other’s shoulders to make sure that their answers are correct, or at least the same.

“Campus is a perfect place to test all that you should have learned in geology,” Grandstaff said.

Unfortunately, students still have to look forward to their final at the end of the semester. And you can bet that won’t be any old walk around campus.

T.C. Mazar can be reached at

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