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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Earl “Skip” Lenker is passionate about lifelong learning. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1956 and earning his doctorate in geosciences from Penn State in 1964, the lifelong educational journey continued.
He spent his career in education, first teaching at Cornell University before moving on to teach at Wilton High School in Connecticut.
Since retiring, Lenker has focused his philanthropy on helping students advance their careers. His support to Penn State touches several areas. Within the Department of Geosciences, Lenker has established a fund to help undergraduate students cover the costs of the six-week field camp experience, which is a requirement for all bachelor of science in geosciences majors, and endowed a graduate student fellowship. He also has provided funding for undergraduate student interns who help care for The Arboretum at Penn State.
Lenker, who conducted trace element analyses during his career and spent notable time in the field, understands the importance of hands-on learning for students. He even has attended Penn State field camp to lead some of the exercises.
“Throughout my career I’ve always been drawn to sharing with students what excites me about the field of geology,” Lenker said. “It’s something I enjoyed at the college level, and the high school level, and continue to do through Penn State’s field camp.”
Penn State’s commitment to field camp, said Donald Fisher, a geosciences professor and director of the field camp, comes at a financial expense for the students. However, he said the ability to gain field experience while participating in hands-on learning more than outweighs the costs.
The field camp endowment created by Lenker is a tremendous financial resource that helps to offset the costs of tuition and travel for many students, making the field camp affordable.
Fisher said the pandemic — which forced a virtual field camp experience in 2020 and a more regional approach in 2021 — showed educators the importance of the Western U.S. field experiences provided by the camp. He said field camp is a chance to live out the lessons they learned in class. And the dry, exposed outcrops of the Rocky Mountains offer an unparalleled view of the geological forces at play. Students gather data by day and, using software such as ArcGIS, analyze their data by night.
“These are spectacular places with great rock exposure,” Fisher said. “Students are able to explore landscape processes that are very difficult to study in the east. Out west, it’s easy to find places where students can map, and, on their own, figure out what the geology of the area is simply by surveying the outcrop.”
Fisher said financial assistance opens doors for more diversity in geosciences. Organizers have been able to minimize costs by utilizing ski resort lodging in the offseason and have a longstanding partnership with the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. Students even camp and cook their own meals for much of the trip. But tuition, travel, and the inability to work during that summer make field camp cost-prohibitive for some.
Helping students get the most of their Penn State experience, said Sue Powell, director of development and alumni relations for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, has been Lenker’s passion for decades.
She said Lenker understands that many universities throughout the country have reduced or eliminated their field camp due to financial constraints, and he’s determined to not let that happen at Penn State.
As a former graduate student, Lenker also knows the connections these students make with both faculty members and graduate students whom they shadow during the experience.
Powell hears from alumni countless vivid, life-changing memories they had while participating in field camp. That’s no surprise, she said, given that field camp comes as they’re nearing the end of their college experience and beginning to define their own career paths.
Powell said Lenker wants to protect and promote these out-of-classroom experiences.
“His ultimate goal is to help students and have a positive effect on their education,” Powell said. “Dr. Lenker's legacy for undergraduate education will allow for this beloved tradition to continue for many years to come.”
Support for experiences beyond the classroom will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.