As you probably already know, winners of the Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award love students, education and helping to train the next generation of geologists.
That’s to be expected. It’s why, frankly, the award exists – why the best educators are honored.
To that extent, winner James O. Puckette from Oklahoma State University fits right in.
But there is something else, too, in his wheelhouse,
You heard right.
To date, Puckette’s efforts at Oklahoma State University, where he has been for the past 15 years (and where, incidentally, he leads the school’s annual quest for an Imperial Barrel Award) has raised more than $3.5 million for the school, primarily in petroleum-related projects, but also $440,000 for general education.
“I enjoy working on projects that support students and expose me to aspects of geology that I have not researched before,” he said.
“Often these are cooperative projects with other departments and colleges,” he added, “and it is through these joint projects we meet new colleagues and in the process keep our learning active.”
Puckette is professor of geology and associate professor of sedimentary geochemistry, organic geochemistry and oceanography at the OSU Boone Pickens School of Geology, where, it should be noted, he teaches a majority of the school’s petroleum geology courses.
Puckette, an AAPG member who serves on four committees, has advised more than 55 graduate students at OSU and served on the thesis/dissertation committees of almost 60.
In the classroom, he believes in a hands-on approach. Literally.
“My teaching philosophy is simple,” he said. “Students learn best in the classroom or field when they are involved in the learning process.”
He said this comes from his own experience as both student and teacher.
“It seems to me that most geologists are tactile learners,” he said. “In lower division courses, I pass mineral and rock samples around the room. I do this in large sections and often have to have at least three samples of each item of interest. I call on students to tell me what it is they are observing or holding in their hands at that moment.”
It works on all levels.
“In upper division courses and graduate courses, I will ask questions of all students, sometimes moving from one chair to the next. Students know they are going to be asked to participate in the teaching process.”
This, he believes, makes him a more effective teacher.
“Often they phrase information or relate experiences better than I.”
Puckette is one of those instructors – and one of the reasons he was chosen this year to receive the award – who knows that geology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To that end, he teaches a course called Geology and Human Affairs.
“This course is designed for non-science students and since it is a course that may be the only natural science course students will complete in their undergraduate career, I want to show students not only why science itself is important, but how it relates to their daily lives,” he said.
And here geography is a friend.
“Since most of our students are from Oklahoma and Texas, an effort is made to use examples from the student’s home state,” he said.
For 14 years he has also been the main organizer and instructor for the school’s geology field camp, located at the Les Huston Geology Field Camp near Canon City, Colo.
One of the characteristics of a good teacher, he feels, is enjoying the moment when a student gets it.
“I enjoy seeing others learn and discover. When a student can relate what they have learned to their hometown or their part of the state or even where they have vacationed, it is a joy seeing that light in their eyes.”
Which is not to say that joy is easily come by.
“Today’s students are often a product of an education system that told them exactly what they are/were expected to know,” he said. “As a result, they want to know exactly what they are expected to do to earn a certain mark or what they are expected to learn for an exam.”
His experience in school was, frankly, less rigid.
“I believe that when I was a student we were forced to be a bit more creative than many of the current students who are accustomed to more of a ‘cookbook style’ learning,” he commented.
Puckette, who has published 47 peer-reviewed papers, has been a featured speaker more than 50 times at industry workshops and presented close to 160 oral and poster presentations, says it is a relentless pursuit.
“One challenge for me,” he admits, “is keeping up with new technology,” which can be both the proverbial blessing and the curse.
“We are blessed with data management technology, and it is a challenge to design exercises for courses that tap into the new technology as a tool, without having students lose track of the fundamental concepts,” he said.
His goal is to get students to mentally visualize the spatial distribution of a bed or reservoir “before they represent if using software.”
Talking to Puckette even for a while, and you can see there’s a passion in this man, a passion in his love of the profession and the science itself.
His classroom is his memory bank – and all the memories tell stories, even his first one.
“I learned that the students gave me good marks for teaching GEOL 2254 (Mineralogy),” he said.
It was his first course. It should have made him feel good, right?
“I was not pleased with the effort.”
A man this self-critical who strives to be better – that more than anything is the definition of a good teacher.
“I am interested in all types of natural science and my passion is my profession,” he said. “When asked what I do for vacation, my reply is usually ’go look at rocks.’”