It’s a new school year for universities, with a new kind of student.
Geoscience professors have seen the desktop-computer generation, the super-processor generation and the laptop generation.
Now they’re welcoming the cell-phone/iPod/Xbox/Blackberry/digital-revolution generation.
As a first in human history, students in this generation feel completely comfortable using technology as an extension of themselves.
“A lot of that you can take for granted. Many kids entering university now practically have that in their pores,” said Andrew Miall, professor of geology at the University of Toronto.
These future geoscience professionals seem highly capable and talented, according to their professors.
The word they use most often to describe today’s college students:
Here are some general observations from earth science educators -- all of whom are AAPG members:
- Students come into university with excellent technology knowledge and good basic skills.
- The oil and gas industry might be sending the wrong signals to these gifted students, in terms of career opportunities.
- University education is not a chalkboard world anymore. Professors have to adapt to digital forms of instruction.
- Earth Sciences education now includes much more than the classical geosciences.
- Students today tend to be skilled at making presentations, but less adept in language skills.
- Even now, few students get much exposure to geology as a science in K-12 or pre-college studies.
You can’t talk about the current generation of college students without talking about digital technology.
“That’s the biggest change to me -- we give away our notes on PDFs. It’s a much more digital world,” said Paul Weimer, professor of geology and director of the Energy and Minerals Applied Research Center at the University of Colorado.
“I think they’re more astute than some of us professors in terms of computing skills,” noted Larry Lines, professor and department head in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Calgary.
That new way of interacting through technology has challenged professors to adopt digital teaching methods.
“Faculty members need to stay up with that (new technology) as much as they can. If you stick with the chalkboard, you might lose them,” said Stephan Graham, professor of geology and associate dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University.
Wayne Ahr is a professor of geology at Texas A&M University with a joint appointment in petroleum engineering.
Ahr said this year he’s requested budget money for a SmartScreen®, a digital device that can be linked to a computer projector and acts like a computer touch screen.
But Ahr also thinks students can lean too much on technology.
He sees students who are very capable at using available software but don’t know how to describe rock properties.
“They have to learn to do mapping by hand instead of letting the computer do it, for instance,” he said. “The computer doesn’t have any imagination.”
Universities, in general, do a good job of providing computer, software and digital resources.
“Things that were a struggle to get your arms around 10 years ago are now routine,” Graham observed. “Students now download PDFs in many cases instead of going to the library.”
Some professors worry that the petroleum industry does not provide enough support for earth science education or encouragement for students to pursue geoscience careers.
“I think the industry did itself damage when it laid off a lot of people and closed down its research facilities,” Miall said.
“Generally, I think they’ve sent a message of strong discouragement for people to go into the industry,” he added.
Weimer noted “companies have been dropping their support of university research programs while trying to recruit more students. This has been a problem for two decades.”
Ahr wondered if educators “aren’t doing a good job explaining how good education can help solve these problems we have today.”
Academics also have to reach out to industry, he said.
“It’s a two-way street,” Ahr commented. “We have an industry advisory panel here ... That really helps with money, with recruiting, with feedback from the industry.”
He’s more worried about university support for practical geoscience work and petroleum geology education.
“This is the time universities should be saying, ‘We need to get our best minds together to find out what we can do about the situation we’re in,’ with oil over $70 a barrel and so on,” Ahr said.
That level of commitment seems to be lacking, and “I’m seeing some people leave universities and go back to industry because of it,” he added.
Others worry that current industry involvement won’t be enough to attract geoscience students in the numbers needed.
“Most of the good ones have several job offers,” Lines observed. “The demand is exceeding the supply. That’s a problem.”
But petroleum industry jobs still attract interest, especially now, and the University of Calgary may end up doubling the size of its geoscience teaching faculty, according to Lines.
Students who do choose earth science majors appear ready to make geoscience a career commitment.
“We still see a lot of people who are curiosity-driven, and we see those who are career-driven. I don’t think you can doubt that a certain number of people are driven by career opportunities,” Graham said.
What’s changed is the belief in a fixed career path and in spending a career at just one company.
“Students 10 years ago realized that if they got into geology they might be changing careers. I think they’re all pretty savvy about it,” Weimer said.
“They know they’ll have to put their own 401K in. They’ll have to know how to move money around,” he added.
Students today are more likely to view their expertise and career tenure as portable instead of tied to one place. They expect to change their employment addresses, Lines noted.
“You’re basically just getting off at a different train stop and working for a different company,” he said.
Geoscience education today covers much more territory than in the past, according to university professors.
“Probably the chief thing that varies for us over the past 20 years is the breadth of things covered under the rubric of earth sciences,” Graham said.
“One of the things I hear often these days is the balance between ‘classical’ geosciences and nontraditional geosciences,” he added.
Part of the broader scope comes from a growing interest in environmental geoscience.
It’s also inclusive of astrogeology, climatology, meteorology, biology and sociology.
“There’s an increasing awareness of all that in a systems mode,” Graham said.
“That’s not a pejorative, because a lot of exciting things are happening in those fields.”
The Wonder Years (?)
In many universities, petroleum geoscience suffered from the industry layoffs of the 1980s, Miall said.
“Earth science has gone through a change since the mid- to late-1980s, when employment for geology students went into a big decline,” he noted.
Lines said his own department has beefed up its environmental and groundwater expertise. And he doesn’t think that’s a bad idea.
“Water will be almost as big as oil in the coming years,” he predicted.
Students entering universities today probably have little past exposure to the geosciences as science.
“In general, earth sciences are not widely taught in high schools across the country. And in a lot of cases, it’s taught to the kind of kids who don’t get into AP physics, for example,” Graham noted.
“I’ve never understood why geology is not presented in high school the same way as the other sciences,” Weimer said.
Whatever the reason, earth science continues to rank near the bottom of the heap in pre-college instruction.
“One of our problems is the public outreach of the geosciences in the high schools and (information about) geoscience careers available,” Lines said.
Lessons to Learn
At the university level, educators can teach more than the basics.
What are they teaching?
“One thing I try to emphasize is that the courses you’re taking are going to give you a competitive advantage for about a year and a half. Then everyone will catch up with you,” Weimer said.
“I’d tell them what I was told: Your scientific half-life is about eight years. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb,” he noted.
Graham tries to teach students to use their digital expertise for learning breakthroughs.
“I’m mostly trying to get people into a frame of mind where they can use the training they have and the technology they have to think creatively, and to think independently,” he said.
Students today face any number of distractions in the digital world. And the cost of getting a first-class education keeps rising.
“The demands on their time and the financial stress seem to be greater. Many of them are working at part-time jobs when they’re at university,” Lines said.
Beyond that, students have to cope with new social and workplace changes as their education continues.
“There’s several revolutions rolled into one,” Miall observed.
Tomorrow is Today
So, in the end, it’s nice to know that educators are uniformly optimistic about this savvy group of students.
“It actually is kind of a rosy future in terms of what will come out of the education these students are getting,” Graham said.
For the petroleum industry, these realities should deliver a message about the digital-revolution generation:
Ready or not, here it comes.