Geoscience education is turning out to be a good fit for the modern university, and an especially good way to position students for the future.
In part that’s because of the nature of Earth Science studies, said Stephan Graham, dean of the geoscience school at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. – just a mile away from Palo Alto and its Silicon Valley buzz.
Geology students are trained in field work and lab work, taking a hands-on and in-person approach to science. That fits right in with current ideas about university instruction.
“They’re basically all about less emphasis on lectures,” he said.
Graham, who earned his doctorate in geology at Stanford, has a practical science background. He began his career in the 1970s as a petroleum geologist, first with Exxon Production Research Co. and then with Chevron USA.
He joined the Stanford faculty in 1980. After working his way through a number of leadership positions, including a stint as acting dean in the School of Earth Sciences, he assumed the full-time office with the big title last November.
And it is a big title, even by academic standards. His full title is: Chester Naramore dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford, Welton Joseph and Maud L’Anphere Crook professor of geological sciences and professor, by courtesy, of geophysics and of energy resources engineering.
Marriage of Disciplines
Stanford today teaches through blended learning, a combination of digital media and traditional classroom instruction. Graham said this approach includes the “flipped classroom,” where instructional material is made available online.
“What the professor would deliver by lecturing is produced as online material that students review before they even get to class,” he said.
A major advantage for students is being able to interact with their professors and each other in a learning environment, instead of sitting through a series of lectures in class.
“You learn more by actively doing than by just sitting and listening,” Graham noted.
Another aspect of teaching at Stanford, as at many other universities, is an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, which have “come to the fore because there is so much to be learned in the interstices between the traditional disciplines,” Graham said.
He cited the cooperation among geologists, geophysicists and engineers in the oil and gas industry as an example of the interdisciplinary teamwork needed to tackle complicated challenges.
“The problems we’re looking at now are so much larger and so much more complex, there’s really no other way to attack them than in an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach,” he said.
Collaboration between the geoscience school and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory shows the serendipity possible in a relationship between disciplines, according to Graham. SLAC is operated by Stanford on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, which provides funding for the laboratory.
Founded in 1962 as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, SLAC has become known for discoveries using its two-mile-long particle accelerator – the first particle containing a charm quark was identified there.
It’s also known for high-energy X-ray imaging. That capability has helped the geoscience school study and evaluate very finely grained low-permeability and low-porosity rock, the kind associated with unconventional oil and gas plays, Graham said.
“This is a marriage of disciplines we hadn’t even thought of a few years ago,” he said.
A New Golden Age
Computing has reshaped the academic world, as bigger and bigger collections of data are being passed through ever-more-powerful processors. Working with geophysical data and other Big Data sets is putting geoscience students in a good place for future careers.
“It’s also true for all the Earth imagery that’s being done, all the satellite imaging,” Graham added. “It’s opening doors to things that were unimaginable a few years ago.”
Opportunities in earth science now range from Google Earth to the planet itself, and even beyond.
“This in turn is opening up all kinds of nonconventional opportunities for geoscience students,” Graham observed. “We sitting here in Silicon Valley really see the bleeding edge of all this, but those opportunities are available around the world.”
Planetary science today is expanding into new frontiers, thanks in part to data from private investment in space launches, Graham said.
“There’s been a resurgence, a renaissance, of space exploration. We’re in kind of a Golden Age of space exploration,” he noted.
Some older geologists can remember when mice squeaked instead of clicked, but university students today grew up with enormous computing power at their fingertips. Many can’t remember a time before smart phones.
“Most of them are so at ease with all things computational it allows them to bring to the table skills older generations wouldn’t have developed,” he said.
Graham is an expert in sedimentary geology and a fellow of the Geological Society of America. His honors include the Sproule Award, the Levorsen Award and the Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award from AAPG, the Mitchum Award from the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers and the Pettijohn Medal for Sedimentology from SEPM.
As dean of Stanford’s geoscience school, Graham oversees 65 faculty members and more than 550 students. Stanford acknowledged a broader scope for the school in 2015, when the School of Earth Sciences became its School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.
Graham said he disagrees with anyone who thinks that the oil and gas industry is somehow at odds with the world’s environmental and sustainability needs.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone involved in the energy extraction business has to be keenly aware of the environmental issues,” he said.
Students entering college now do see more importance placed on the environmental aspects of geoscience, Graham observed.
“They’ve noticed that many university departments in earth sciences have moved more into the environmental aspects of earth sciences. Some of them have moved quite far in that direction,” he said.
And he believes that universities should equip their geoscience students with the tools to understand and deal with environmental and sustainability issues.
“It’s the responsible thing to do, particularly as we educate students for living in this century,” Graham said.
At the same time, the geoscience school puts an emphasis on practical applications of science, including courses in sedimentary and petroleum geology, and on applied research.
“Stanford, and particularly this school, has always been able to walk the line between basic research and applied research,” Graham noted.
For the coming decade, Graham sees continued growth in computing-related instruction, with more and bigger data sets and faster and better processing. And like many other universities, Stanford has begun reaching out to nontraditional students and those who may be first in their family to attend college.
“Stanford in recent years has paid special attention to low-income students and first-generation college students,” making beneficial financing packages available, he said.
But graduate students seeking a master’s degree or doctorate in geology don’t have to worry about financing. In that regard, Stanford’s geoscience school is extremely lucky.
Graham said all grad students in the geoscience school, not just Stanford graduates, are “fully stipended and supported” in their quest for advanced degrees.