Paul Mann, 2020’s AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award recipient, knew the question was coming: What is the joy and challenge of teaching?
It’s a question with which he’s been challenging himself for years.
“Overall, my view of education is to figure out ways to get students excited about interesting areas and topics,” he said.
Mann, who is currently a professor of geology, tectonics and petroleum geology at the University of Houston, knows that the level of excitement – whether it comes from the instructor or the student – isn’t the only consideration, though, in a successful educational model. Nobody controls all the dynamics at play.
“Not all of these will outperform because this depends on their background, innate curiosity, aptitude for learning, persistence and many other factors that are born and not made in any educational institution or instilled by any supervisor,” he said.
The good instructors will, with enough persistence and encouragement, move the student in that direction, though. And here Mann, who is also the director of the school’s Conjugate Basins, Tectonics and Hydrocarbons Consortium, reaches, as all effective teachers do, into great literature for some perspective.
“The key for educators, quoting Yeats, is to light the fire and not just fill the pail,” he said.
The pail, the fire, and everything alongside has been jolted lately, both in education and industry, by the “double dark swans” of COVID-19 and a contracting industry, but even before the latest upheavals, Mann said he has been aware of the moving goals and approaches to pedagogy.
“The biggest change in the classroom is to have students act and think as part of a team,” he said, recalling his own experience where that didn’t happen.
“When I was in high school and college, there was very little opportunity for collaboration in the classroom. Instead, we worked independently, each vying for the highest grade and being the quickest to answer questions,” he related.
Even now, the transition to a collaborative approach, which you might think is commonplace, is still not a fixture everywhere.
“Most UH students are grads of the U.S.-style mega-high schools with several thousand students,” he said. “So that environment is not conducive to anything other than mass, individualized learning – best characterized by standardized testing,” said Mann.
This is unfortunate, he maintains, especially in the oil and gas profession, which relies on such collaboration.
“Since most of our UH students go to the oil industry and industry ranks teamwork above all else, it is critical to get students out of the individualized, mass education mindset and into the team mindset,” he said.
As an example, he said that when focusing on basins in his classes, he has the students form teams for a mini-Imperial Barrel Award experience, whether they are actually in the competition or not. Mann has been the school’s faculty IBA co-adviser for years, including in 2017, when the school took top honors. As such, he has a special place in his heart for the competition.
It’s in his wheelhouse, one might say.
“For the IBA in the spring, we have both competition and non-competition teams to give that experience. The paradigm shift for students to realize is that the sum is greater than the parts,” said Mann.
And that is important, he underscores, because only by working together “can the amount of work needed for the eight-week IBA program be accomplished.”
Mann has heard all the excuses, too, about why it can’t be done, and he doesn’t buy any of them.
“Whenever teams form from class groups there are always issues of: ‘I don’t like my captain … This team is not communicating and contributing to the team, etc.’ My response is, ‘Welcome to the world,’” he explained, adding that the group needs to solve their problems and figure what each person needs to contribute toward a quality product.
Principles, Plus Software
As for the focus on education going forward, this year’s top educator sees a landscape that is all too familiar, meaning the risks and challenges are already known.
What is needed?
This is also not a mystery.
“I would say, more computer skills,” said Mann. “In some ways geoscience curriculum has not changed much since I was an undergrad 40 years ago in the pre-personal computer age. The key is computer skills like ArcGIS, subsurface mapping using various softwares, visualization, basin modeling, etc.”
The goal, he said, is for students to understand the underlying principles and to have a complete command of the software.
“Our group takes pride in developing excellent mapmaking skills and presentation skills in both posters and PowerPoint talks. Even students who come in with little skill in their area soon blossom, given that the bar is higher. These skills will serve them well throughout their careers,” he said.
As to the award itself, Mann wants to specifically thank say Charles Sternbach, longtime AAPG Member, whom Mann said is a huge supporter of UH geosciences and of the CBTH effort.
Ultimately, for Mann, it’s the growth of the individual student, which in turn helps the growth of the university, which in turn helps the growth of the profession.
“There is nothing more satisfying to me than to see the entering junior student transition in a year or so into the knowledgeable and more confident, senior student who creates a legacy of original research products and eventually graduates and starts an interesting and productive job,” he said.