Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Wedge: Whaddya Wanna Know?

Anne Jefferson over at Highly Allochthonous (you know you're a geology geek if you can spell their blog correctly on the first try without checking) wants to know about geoscience education and careers. (Updated: thanks to Ron and Matt for pointing out an amusing error)

If you are a professor… what do you wish your students would ask? What do you think they should know, regardless of whether it is formally taught and assessed? Do you think we’re doing a good job preparing our students for think future jobs? What should you and I and other geosciences profs be doing better? Do you want to see more involvement from alumni or others in industry and government?

As an educator and scientist, I really can't bring myself to provide a "final" answer to that series of questions. For me, an answer to a question isn't the end - it's simply a node connected to more questions. It's like a subway. Each station might get you where you want to go, but there's always somewhere else you can go from there. You leave the subway, head up to the surface to go shopping or whatever, and you stop going places.

So my feeling is that, as college professors, we have to teach content. But it's easy to get lost in content. At my university, I don't have true "geology" majors, so I don't have students that will be taking a petrology course of some kind. The content that might be vital for giving students the necessary tools in a petrology course (like identifying a big batch of unknown minerals), isn't going to really be used by my students. But an understanding that rocks are made OF specific types of minerals (and if you really want to know more details, here's where to look) will help them appreciate the world around them and the work that geologists do.

    In fact, the only details about minerals I point out as being important are:
  • There are lots of different kinds of minerals and we can tell them apart by their physical and chemical characteristics

  • Most minerals are "silicates" (contain the elements silicon and oxygen - the two most common elements in the earth's crust)

  • Of the silicates some are typically dark in color and more dense (Mafic silicates)

  • Other silicates are lighter in color and less dense - plus they are made of much more complex molecules (Felsic silicates)

  • Some common minerals dissolve relatively easily in water and weak acids (like Carbonate minerals)

  • Some minerals are simply Oxides (a metal like iron or aluminum combined with oxygen) "rust" is an example.

  • Other minerals are made of just one element. Since we find these elements all by themselves, we call them "Native" elements (like diamond, graphite, copper, gold and sulfur).

  • There are several other groups, some of these contain valuable elements - much of the stuff that makes your cell phone work the way it does depends on these rare elements

From this, my students have enough content to know a few details at the start, but - more importantly - they have a conceptual structure (the "scaffolding" in pedagogy talk) to place additional content. Like why volcanoes with mafic melt sources are fundamentally different than volcanoes with more felsic melt. Or why mafic rocks break down into oxides and simple clay minerals, while felsic rocks break down into quartz and more complex clay minerals. If students take my soils course later on, they have the most important details in-hand and we can talk about more details - like why soils that contain complex clay minerals behave differently than soils with simple clay minerals.

Ultimately, my goal is not to turn students into mini-factbooks, crammed with lots and lots of facts and details. Rather, I want students to appreciate that there are amazing and wonderful stories to be read from the earth. I want them to appreciate that there are important details, but they don't need all the details to begin reading the story. Many of us became geologists because they history of the earth itself was enthralling. We pulled together the important details later, as we dug deeper. The most important part was to be curious. To want to take the time and look in the first place. I certainly see this happening in some fields of geoscience education, but I think we could do more to engage and "hook" the non-geology majors with a desire to be curious.

I know that many undergraduates are coming in to college to learn Skill X to apply to Job Y. This is important, but only "right now." Things will change - so Skill X may be obsolete after a few years (perhaps even by the time you graduate). The Esri blog post about 5 skills every GIS specialist should have applies to many fields, not just careers in GIS.

For students, I want to say that it's okay if they forget the details after they take my course. But don't throw away that scaffolding. And don't stop trying to build onto those scaffolds in the future. To get back to the subway metaphor, you should want to keep going. You should get out at the stops and look around, maybe even buy a newspaper or nutroll or something and hang out. But get back on the train. Go somewhere else. Don't assume for a minute that once the train stops and the doors open that everything stops. Once you have an answer to a question, look at it. What other interesting questions does it generate? Keep asking questions.

Get back on the train.

1 comment:

  1. So wait, are you saying you're not a geology geek or you went with your second try? (Check the spelling of Allochthonous up top.)