Geoscience education is essential to the AAPG Foundation. In fact, it’s promised right there in the Foundation’s mission statement, to “… support(ing) education and scientific activities in the field of geology.”
Also crucial to the Foundation: engaging and informing the general public about the importance of energy, geology and the world in which we all reside.
That’s why there are many, many Foundation programs supporting all those goals.
But some Foundation-backed projects exist to do both at the same time – and one, in particular, is making a big impact on both students and the public by merging geology, geosciences and video production techniques into one informative, often timely and always accessible package.
Welcome to the University of Texas-Dallas Geoscience Studio – or UTD GSS for those in the know – an initiative created and managed by two AAPG Members who are passionate about training geoscientists for the future while simultaneously informing and drawing the world to the importance of geology.
Those creators are Robert Stern, a veteran geoscience professor at UTD who headed the school’s geoscience department from 1997-2005, and Ning Wang, a researcher and doctoral candidate who met Stern as a graduate student in 2013.
Ning has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geophysics and a master’s degree in geology. His current interdisciplinary research deals with designing and creating geoscience educational multimedia materials – specifically, he’s seeking to improve educational modeling and visualizations of the Earth system so the public can better understand how the Earth system works.
He’s also trying to develop a design framework for geoscientists and educators to use for creating their own videos.
The Geoscience Studio, Stern proudly admits, reflects his “passion about geoscience and geoscience education, as well as the unrealized potential of videos for advancing geoscience education.
“(I’m) pushing video-based geoscience education research because the geosciences are deeply important for the world’s future,” he continued.
“Without innovative approaches in education, there won’t be enough geoscientists to tackle present and future Earth science challenges,” he said. “There might not even be enough students to justify four-year geoscience programs.”
Have you seen any of the department’s “GEONEWS” videos via YouTube during the past year? If so, you were among the 2,600 channel subscribers who saw as many as five concise, professional-looking, attention-grabbing news videos that showcased the students’ work for the public in an urgent and timely way.
The UTD GSS channel itself has produced 98 educational videos – with seven more about to be posted – in addition to the GEONEWS updates.
And at the end of each GEONEWS? A reminder that the AAPG Foundation helped sponsor the creation.
And although only a few years old, the results are becoming obvious: Students in the program seem inspired by learning how to creatively understand and communicate geosciences, and the public seems more compelled – or, certainly, more welcomed – to access the world of geology.
Telling the Story
The now nearly seven-year-old UTD GSS project can be traced to 2016, about the time when Stern, who had taught geology for more than 30 years, started to realize a disconnect in the way geology and geosciences were being communicated.
In his mind, science didn’t match the way the public received information about , well … anything.
“I haven’t always been interested in videos,” Stern said, “but I have been interested in helping students learn better, and one of the things that we see with students is that they’re less interested in reading than they used to be – and they were not all that interested in it to begin with.”
Field trips, for a variety of reasons, were not an option for Stern and his UTD classes, but he actively sought ways to stay involved with his students.
It was at that time when Stern and Wang, who was just starting his post-graduate path, started to experiment with an inexpensive drone equipped with a GoPro camera – specifically, to make large-scale outcrop 3-D models for the UTD Geosciences cyber-mapping team.
Coincidentally, Stern received a small National Science Foundation grant to make an educational video about plate tectonics.
So, this would be easy to accomplish, right? Get some UTD students from the school’s visual art department to help and they’d have the plate tectonic video ready in no time, right? Right?
Well … no. The students brought in to help had technical skills, but knew nothing about Earth processes, making it difficult and frustrating to work with Stern and the other geoscience students on what needed to be shown about the science. Meanwhile, the geoscience students who knew what they were trying to say had no skills to say it.
To be clear, at this time neither Stern nor Wang had any serious filmmaking experience either, although Wang proved to have a blossoming potential for merging science with video production.
“My passion is one key,” Stern said, “but Geoscience Studio would be nothing but a pleasant dream without a techno-whiz student like Ning.”
That’s when it started. Why don’t we learn how to do it?
But that’s not all they did. Stern and Wang not only found a way to tell the important story of Earth sciences in a new way, but they also launched UTD GSS – and then, each spring, Stern started to offer a class called “Geoscience Animations and Videos.”
And then came the bonus: Stern found an effective way to connect with students, students quickly embraced the approach and seized the opportunity to learn and communicate in a new way, and the public gets an accessible and engaging way to learn about the Earth and geosciences.
Reversing the Decline
Since its creation, the Geosciences Animations and Videos class has trained 31 undergraduate students, including this year’s nine students – the largest class ever.
In it, students select and research an area of Earth or space science that interests them, create a script, learn how to film and animate to illustrate the topic, and then submit a three-minute video for their grade.
“For GEONEWS videos, we focus on natural events in the news, intending to release a short (three-five minutes) video within two weeks after the event,” Stern said. “There is usually plenty of footage that can be freely used. They key thing is to tell an interesting and scientifically robust story about the Earth process that was responsible.
“Making a video is an excellent example of active learning,” he added, “an intensely creative process that impels students to take responsibility for their own learning.”
Among the GEONEWS videos made with the Foundation’s support are:
- The Science Behind the Hunga Tonga Volcano Eruption
- The Kamchatka Volcanoes
- The Science Behind New Zealand’s Magnitude 8 Earthquake
- What happened to the Texas Electrical Grid?
- All About Lithium
“We use open-source material too, like simulations, videos (for example, National Geographic), animations, gif files, pictures, etc.,” Stern said. “We always credit them in the sources and references if we do so. By using others’ work – while respecting usage rights – we entice the audience to easily link to more material on topics that interest them.”
Stern’s emphasis is on education for the public as well as the students.
“We are very well aware that different audiences require different things,” he said.
“We see videos as a central activity of 21st-century geosciences, so there’s an element of trying to get the community to wake up and, as they say, participate in their own survival,” he said. “We’re not doing it justice by just writing papers.
“I’m very concerned about the declining interest in the geosciences, and I think we’re partly to blame for that because, you know, we write and rewrite our papers and then wonder why nobody reads them,” Stern said. “But the reality is we don’t explain our science in the right ways to different audiences. Scientific papers are perfect for professionals, poison for the public and beginning students.”
“I don’t know what the public needs to know, but I know that scientists need to do a better job of explaining to them what we’re doing. That I know.”