“Transition” dominates geoscience education at the university level today, especially petroleum geoscience education, as classrooms transition out of the COVID pandemic and the energy transition plays a larger role in college curricula.
“This semester’s the first we’ve been back face-to-face. But it’s nothing like it was before COVID,” said Kate Giles, professor of Earth, environmental and resource sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso and a 2022 recipient of AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way we were before,” she said.
While the pandemic did disrupt in-person classroom instruction, it also has made new tools and teaching methods available to educators, according to Marjorie Chan, distinguished professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, also a recipient of the 2022 Murray award.
For instance, she said, she recently was able to arrange for three Utah geoscience alumni to participate in a Zoom meeting with students.
With remote access, “we’re meeting with people all over the world and I think that’s very powerful,” Giles agreed.
Advancing Geoscience Education
For teachers, a fundamental challenge now is preparing students for a world that is increasingly uncertain and unpredictable, and in some ways seems impossible to prepare for.
Giles and Chan outlined several best practices to help advance geoscience education:
● Build creative interdisciplinary programs.
“In today’s world, the more we can show the interdisciplinary connections, the more students see the interconnections, the stronger their geoscience education,” Giles noted.
“Together with students I’ve learned to stretch myself in both my teaching and in helping develop new technologies. Some of the courses that were totally outside my training were classes on ‘Mars for Earthlings’ and ‘Countertop Geology’ – analyzing a myriad of polished slabs typically used for kitchen countertops,” Chan said.
● Create learning opportunities.
“My goal as an educator is to try to make opportunities for students to learn and experience what our science is about,” Chan said.
“At my own campus, I’ve been particularly excited to be a leader in making our academic buildings an experiential environment for learning by engaging displays in our building that express who we are as a discipline and provides accessible resources that we use in teaching,” she added.
● Emphasize critical thinking and communication.
“Developing critical thinking skills” has been a perennial favorite among the stated goals of educators. Chan and Giles said it remains an essential pursuit.
Giles said her goal as an educator is to “work with people to give them a good fundamental background in geoscience and to help them develop their critical thinking ability, and apply it to everything.”
She said communication and interpersonal skills are essential to developing student interaction and helping students build up a personal network.
“Critical thinking will always be essential and can allow students to adapt and change as needed. Communication is another key skill that can allow students to succeed even when there are uncertainties and unpredictable situations,” Chan noted.
“Geoscience students can best prepare themselves by gaining as much experience as possible --such as research projects and also participating in the department outreach and service, which helps hone important communication skills,” she said.
● Introduce geo-conservation.
“Geoscience students should also be cognizant of the global geo-conservation movement which recognizes that special geological sites or features with significant scientific, educational, cultural and/or aesthetic value need to be protected and managed as part of our geo-heritage,” Chan said.
“Our geo-heritage may be key to advancing knowledge and to support the broad understanding of the environment, its geodiversity and biodiversity, and the factors that influence climate change,” she added.
● Get students out in the field.
“This longstanding tradition is still important,” a way to “take knowledge and apply it to a new setting. There’s nothing like hands-on field experiences, now supported with new technologies,” Chan said.
Giles called field work a capstone experience and an undertaking that can build bonds for life. She shared a field-trip experience with Chan when they were at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the same time and she was Chan’s field assistant.
However, they noted that some students would rather avoid field work – Chan said for those students the outings might be “pushing their comfort level.”
“There are other ways to contribute to the science that don’t involve field work. But a breadth of experiences can still support students moving forward,” she said.
That also points up the need for diverse approaches to education as a more diverse group of students enters universities. Chan said it’s important for university educators “to try to prepare the next generations by embracing multiple perspectives and building diversity, equity and inclusion that will make our science stronger, better and more relevant.”
“We have a lot of different people with different backgrounds, a lot of diversity coming into geoscience, so there’s not a one-size-fits-all (approach to geoscience education). I came out of a background that was pretty standard,” she noted.
She said that “standard” experience included the traditional classroom lecture/textbook/exam approach. Education has long involved choices “between the tried-and-true and the shiny-and-new.” In this case, the “tried” is traditional geoscience instruction and the “shiny” includes new technology.
Giles considers herself more of a traditionalist in geoscience education in the sense of not wanting to lose sight of geoscience fundamentals, while learning to adopt new technologies and techniques.
“I worry we are dumping fundamental geoscience in lieu of using the (technical) tools and the soft skills,” she said.
Blending the Outside and the Inside
As universities move into the post-COVID period, geoscience departments are considering new ways to build up inviting and creativity-inducing environments for their students, who now are returning to classrooms, labs, study groups and dorms.
At the University of Utah, Chan was credited as a visionary force behind the development of the school’s Frederick Albert Sutton Building, the award-winning, 91,000-square-foot home for its Department of Geology and Geophysics.
“Being surrounded by beautiful polished rock slabs is inspiring and helps us blend the outside with the inside. Inviting buildings are an important outreach tool for both students and visitors,” Chan observed.
“Other Earth science departments nationally and internationally have learned from this success and adopted similar approaches, so that there is an important ripple effect that may influence students I’ve never even met,” she said.
Asked about the future of geoscience education, Giles and Chan both landed on the same word: “Exciting.”
Giles said schools need to recapture the benefits of in-person student-instructor and student-student interactions, and of lab and field work, while adjusting to new technology and new approaches.
“There are things that we lost in the classroom during the past two years of COVID, and we want them back,” Giles said. “If we learn to make adjustments and we don’t lose what we’ve had in the past, I think (the future) is really exciting.”
Chan observed that the future of geoscience education has changed significantly, from requiring knowledge and knowing facts, to “now more of knowing how to find information. We also know better how students learn and retain material, and we have many new tools and approaches at our disposal.”
“Applications of cybertechnology, including artificial intelligence/machine learning, will really change the future of our whole field of Earth science as there are bigger data sets, more open data sharing, better visualizations and more ways to overlay information. It’s really an exciting future ahead,” she said.