Geoscience Higher Ed For the Next Century

Geoscience educators at the university level today face two difficult decisions in preparing for future decades: what to teach, and how to teach it.

That’s not a joke. Recent history threatens to upend the way teachers prepare petroleum geology students for work in the industry.

First and probably foremost are the effects of the information revolution and the ubiquity of the Internet and Web, and the opportunities and problems that creates.

“There’s so much information it’s mind-boggling,” said Roger Slatt, Gungoll Family Chair professor of petroleum geology and geophysics and director of the Institute of Reservoir Characterization at the University of Oklahoma.

Educators should begin spending less time telling students what the true answer is and a lot more time teaching them how to deduce the answer and assess the value of information, said Lesli Wood, Weimer Distinguished Chair and professor in sedimentary and petroleum geology at the Colorado School of Mines.

“One of the things I’ve had to do in the past five years or so is to think about how we’re teaching students,” Wood said.

She noted there’s little point now in telling students to memorize the age of the Pennsylvanian when that information is “available at the touch of a finger.”

“We need to be teaching students how to go out and mine this wealth of information,” Wood said. “It’s probably more important to teach them where the information is, and how to go get it.”

Slatt said so much information has migrated to the Web that today entire courses can be planned without reference to textbooks.

“That’s been good in a way because of availability, but it’s also caused more problems in plagiarism and things like that,” he said.

One common and related complaint from geoscience educators involves the decline in writing ability among undergraduate students. Many students “would prefer to cut and paste rather than write on their own,” said Slatt.

Image Caption

With a new generation of “digital natives,” institutes like the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Oklahoma must grapple with striking the right balance between applied knowledge and theoretical concepts. Pictured is the OU Bartell Field Camp, where the university holds its field courses.

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Geoscience educators at the university level today face two difficult decisions in preparing for future decades: what to teach, and how to teach it.

That’s not a joke. Recent history threatens to upend the way teachers prepare petroleum geology students for work in the industry.

First and probably foremost are the effects of the information revolution and the ubiquity of the Internet and Web, and the opportunities and problems that creates.

“There’s so much information it’s mind-boggling,” said Roger Slatt, Gungoll Family Chair professor of petroleum geology and geophysics and director of the Institute of Reservoir Characterization at the University of Oklahoma.

Educators should begin spending less time telling students what the true answer is and a lot more time teaching them how to deduce the answer and assess the value of information, said Lesli Wood, Weimer Distinguished Chair and professor in sedimentary and petroleum geology at the Colorado School of Mines.

“One of the things I’ve had to do in the past five years or so is to think about how we’re teaching students,” Wood said.

She noted there’s little point now in telling students to memorize the age of the Pennsylvanian when that information is “available at the touch of a finger.”

“We need to be teaching students how to go out and mine this wealth of information,” Wood said. “It’s probably more important to teach them where the information is, and how to go get it.”

Slatt said so much information has migrated to the Web that today entire courses can be planned without reference to textbooks.

“That’s been good in a way because of availability, but it’s also caused more problems in plagiarism and things like that,” he said.

One common and related complaint from geoscience educators involves the decline in writing ability among undergraduate students. Many students “would prefer to cut and paste rather than write on their own,” said Slatt.

“That’s had an effect on writing skills,” he added.

Wood recalled editing an 80-page paper intended for online publication and wanting to reduce its length, only to be told length didn’t matter “because it’s digital.” She tries to teach her students to be concise in their writing.

“If you really want to get your science out there, you need to learn how to abstract ideas,” she said.

Practical Versus Theoretical

Looking at the next 100 years of teaching geoscience, university educators also have to consider how much emphasis to put on practical working knowledge and skills and how much to focus on theory and conceptualization and research skills.

“That’s a debate at many universities. At OU we are applied geology and geophysics,” Slatt said.

Colorado School of Mines also emphasizes practical knowledge that students can immediately apply in the workplace, Wood said. She noted that companies no longer are willing to give new hires five years to develop professional experience.

“Now what you see is that young people are coming into the industry from school and they’re getting a lot of work right away. Companies are trying to hold down costs,” Slatt said.

The recent severe industry downturn has undoubtedly influenced today’s widespread emphasis on applied knowledge in university-level geoscience education.

Professors understand that students will need practical skills if they want to find a job after graduation, but too much attention on applied geoscience can come at the cost of shortchanging knowledge-development and research skills, which is something that could have implications later in this century.

“If you walk down a hall in a company anymore, you hardly ever see a microscope. It’s all on the computer screen,” Slatt noted.

Humans Needed

He’s also concerned about a move away from fieldwork for geology undergraduates and the shrinking number of schools offering petroleum geology education.

We seem to be in a period when Earth sciences of all types are increasing in importance for the world, but diminishing in attention and esteem.

“Fewer universities offer summer field courses as part of the curriculum. Some have cut it out completely, some universities have cut way back,” Slatt observed.

“There are also fewer universities offering petroleum geology degrees. We get a lot more applicants than we can accept into our petroleum geology program,” he said.

Developments in artificial intelligence have led to talk about creating a “computer geologist” or a “virtual geologist” – an AI program that can carry out the functions of a professional geologist, Wood noted.

She said one reason that won’t work is “computers won’t be asked the innovative questions.” Woods thinks future geologists need more training in asking the right questions in an organized approach to solving problems.

“One of the things we don’t teach enough, at the elementary to high school level and even at the undergraduate level, is an organization process for scientific examination,” Wood said. “We teach students to look for answers, but we don’t teach them to identify the pertinent questions.”

Another problem with a strictly computerized approach to geoscience is the over-reliance on massive, generalized, unbiased data, she said, citing engineers who believe that reservoir models can be conditioned simply by amassing data.

“I tell my kids when they graduate they’re getting paid to bias the data – with good ideas and good approaches to selecting well sites, for instance, instead of just plotting points on a map,” Wood said.

“There’s something to be said for siting a well and putting down a hole and testing your scientific knowledge,” she added.

Enter Generation Z

In the long run, over many decades, knowing what to teach is more of an adjustment than a commitment to known science. Consider that 30 years ago it would have been perfectly acceptable to teach that extremely low-porosity formations like tight sandstones or shales couldn’t be commercially productive reservoirs.

Oops.

“You always have to recognize that technological advances happen, and what isn’t productive today may turn out to be a huge reservoir tomorrow,” Wood said, giving methane hydrates as an example of a too-often overlooked resource that could become a vital energy source in the future.

Two other important considerations will affect the future of geoscience education. One is the type of students entering universities, their background knowledge, their experiences and expectations, their generational characteristics.

Slatt said he’s already seen a significant difference as millennials have entered and graduated from the university. Now some post-millennials, or members of Generation Z, are starting their undergraduate years.

“The millennials who are entering the work force, their motto is ‘quality of life.’ That’s going to cause some real changes in the workplace,” he noted.

Also, university geoscience courses of the future promise to be less male-dominated, bringing about another kind of change. Yes, there will be more women in geoscience.

“As you see more parents encouraging their daughters to go into any occupation they want to, we’re beginning to see the end of this pigeonholing of women” into certain fields, Wood said.

The second consideration is a highly important question with an unknowable answer at this point: Where will the great geoscience teachers of the future come from?

“There’s a strong need for good teachers who like to work with people,” Wood noted.

What would she say if one of her students expressed an interest in university-level geoscience education as a career?

“I’d ask them, ‘Do you like to write? Do you like to read other people’s writing?’ Because that’s what you spend a lot of time doing,” she said. “I’d ask them, ‘Do you like to see other people grow into their own success?’”

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