Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Resources, environment, and teaching intro geoscience in the 21st century

The Teaching Intro Geoscience workshop ended with small-group discussions about what's different about teaching intro geo courses in the 21st century. The discussion was spurred by the workshop's tag - the On the Cutting Edge series features lots of workshops on "Teaching X in the 21st Century" (where X has equaled petrology, structural geology, hydrology, sedimentary geology, geophysics, geomorphology, and intro geoscience), but we weren't talking as much about what's new as about how to teach effectively, period.

The summary of the discussion hasn't been uploaded yet, and I don't remember it well enough to summarize it. (As a friend likes to say, "I've slept since then.") But I want to talk about something that I was thinking about, but didn't say (because I was talking too much already).

The geosciences are central to understanding and dealing with big problems that humans are dealing with right now. We've said this in the past, but suddenly the geosciences are on the front page of newspapers (even when there hasn't been an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a flood) and are central to election issues. High prices for gasoline and natural gas, and the proposed solutions (wind, sun, nuclear, geothermal, new drilling offshore, oil shale, gas from shale, coal gasification, coal-bed methane), and the potential environmental costs of the various solutions (global warming, nuclear waste disposal, impacts from mining everything from coal to the components of solar panels, oil spills, groundwater contamination) - geoscientists contribute to understanding all of these things. For as long as I've been in geology, we've been talking about this stuff, but during the last fifteen years, few of these issues have grabbed students' attention. But the world is different - different again, for those of us shaped by the economy of the 1970's, but different for the first time for the majority of intro students.

The misconceptions we've got to deal with are overwhelming. I've recently realized that many people don't realize that methane (the greenhouse gas released by burping cows, among many other sources) is the scientific name for natural gas (the stuff that heats their home, and the fuel that T. Boone Pickens wants to use to replace gasoline in cars). And that natural gas is different from oil (and the various things that come from crude oil, such as gasoline and diesel fuel and #2 fuel oil and plastics and asphalt), but that propane can be produced from both natural gas and crude oil. And that coal gasification and coal-bed methane are different things. And that the sun's light hits Earth at different angles in the summer and winter (and that the sun is not closer in the Northern Hemisphere summer), and if you want to design effective home solar panels, you should think about that. And that the direction the wind blows depends on many things, and isn't the same all the time. And... and... and...

I don't handle resource geology very well. I'm one of those people who has taught it at the end of the semester, crammed into one discussion, and it hasn't usually gone well. (Not even when I start it by making students brainstorm a list of all the resources that they use when driving to the mountains to go skiing.) Part of the problem is my background: I grew up in the 70's as one of the "damn Yankees freez[ing] in the dark" and got into geology in the 80's because I liked water, and I became a hard-rock geologist in the early 90's, when the only resource geologists getting jobs were hydrologists. But maybe my background could also be a strength now. I've never worked for oil or mining (and was briefly an environmental geochemist), but I know plenty of people who do. (That's one side effect of being the past president of an AAPG-affiliated society.) I've taken oil money (Arco funded my graduate advisor, and Chevron, Shell, and Mobil had all endowed funds that supported graduate students), but am familiar with the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change. (I read the literature, I've been a member of AGU, I know climate researchers and trust their competence as scientists.) I don't think that demonizing either environmentalists or oil/gas/mining companies gets us anywhere close to solving the tough problems we've got to deal with.

So I'm thinking about what to do. I'm teaching Earth Systems Science, which gives me both opportunities and constraints. I can't simply structure an entire intro course around resource problems (though that could make a good topical intro course), but I can fit resources into the theme of big geochemical cycles. (Too bad I don't really structure my course using an earth systems approach - my one attempt left students saying "Earth is a complex system and we can't understand it," which was not the response I had hoped for.) Maybe I can use resource issues as case studies for discussions of all sorts. Maybe I should find a way to talk about organic stuff (like petroleum and coal) in my minerals section - they aren't minerals (because they're organic), but they are important chemical components of rocks. I could talk about what makes oil, coal, and natural gas in my discussion of sedimentary rocks. I could figure out some way to talk about fracture mechanics (and why cracks are important for both water and natural gas, and why they are potentially dangerous in places like the Crandall Canyon mine collapse) when I'm talking about earthquakes and structural geology. I already talk about climate change, but I could work in some kind of final brainstorming session that ties everything together. (Was that vague? I swear, before I do anything in class my instructions will be more specific.)

What would you do? What misconceptions have you encountered about resources? How would you deal with them - especially when it comes to misconceptions that are entrenched in political beliefs, from the Right or the Left?

11 comments:

BrianR said...

this is a great topic for discussion ... I will post about this soon ...

Silver Fox said...

And old fractures/faults are important for localization of mineral deposits - often called structural preparation of the ground.

It sounds like you have and are working on a lot of good ideas.

One thing about Crandall Canyon, though - I don't think fractures had much to do with the mine collapse. They just did it wrong. The MSHA report will be out tomorrow, although it may just cover their butts. Will post about the state of things as of today.

Kim said...

Silver Fox - yes, I definitely talk about fractures and ore deposits in structure! And about Crandall Canyon, I simply meant that the rock broke. If the rock breaks, that's fracture mechanics, whether the rock broke millions of years ago or whether it broke while people were trying to do retreat mining. (I need to read the article in Science - I would like to be able to talk about the mine collapse in the context of why we use the term "failure," or in talking about stresses and breaking rocks. That's in structure, though - I'm not sure how to get into the idea of stress with intro students. Maybe it's important enough that I need to try.)

Silver Fox said...

That's true, it's rock mechanics for sure, was just thinking more along the lines of mine-scale (or larger) fractures. I wonder if the Science article goes into any pre-collapse studies of the rock strength, etc.

Kim said...

I should try to find out some of the basic mechanical properties of coal (Young's modulus, Poisson's ratio, etc). It would be interesting to use coal as an example to try to make sense of all the weird quantitative information about how rocks deform and break. (Especially because we live on the edge of a basin that produces coal-bed methane.)

But not in an intro class. In an intro class, I just want them to remember that cracks in rocks are really important.

Joe Kopera said...

Kim, you hit the nail on the head! And from what you're writing I think you're doing a great job... but I think what you're experiencing with your students is part of a much larger problem...

[begin rant]

Much of what you just said was discussed at the keynote addresses at the recent meeting of the AASG (American Association of State Geologists) last month. These talks were given by the directors of the USGS and the British Geologic Survey-- the general consensus, from the public-policy side, is that the biggest hurdle is the shear amount of geoscience illiteracy in this country, and although there are a lot of factors involved in that, geologists, collectively, have played a significant role in this problem. This is in part due to our own lack of clear thinking as to how to market ourselves to the public.

To paraphrase a portion of the speech, heard second hand: "Geologists have an identity crisis: We call ourselves Geoscientists, Earth Systems Scientists, Petrologists, Geochemists, Geologists, Glaciologists, Oceanographers, etc... The public has a generally clear idea of what a biologist, chemist, or physicist studies. But what the heck does a geologist, oops, now geoscientist, oops, now earth-systems scientist do?"

Oh yeah, we're the people who chase dinosaurs and tell people a volcano is about to blow up... or, get confused with archaelogists...

"Geologists also tend to act on public policy at a pace on par with the timescale of the processes we study."

In other words, we know that the biggest problems facing civilization right now have to do with what we study-- but have we done a good job of letting civilization know that? To this end I think that a marketing course, management course, and a thorough reading of Edward Tufte should be required for any graduate science degree.

I doubt the problem with your students is more about misconceptions than just a simple lack of decent earth-science education prior to your class. As an intro. instructor you're given the rather enormous and unfair task of boiling down and cramming several years worth of coursework down their throats. It's a long shot, in one semester, to educate your average freshman in enough basic science so they're at the point where they can even begin to appreciate the enormity and complexity of the concepts presented in the course...

So I don't know what advice to give other than "Sisu!"

I think that the heart of the solution lies partly in better science education at the grade-school and high-school level (with my dream of AP geology as a capstone course for high school seniors).

Granted... I'm biased. I entered college hating science and math after 12 years of abysmal science teaching. I had an appreciation for geology and astronomy mostly because of having National Geographic around the house, and parents that thought the local science museum, fossil hunting, and the Smithsonian were great destinations for day trips and that PBS should be a large part of our TV regimen. Earth science was absent from my formal curriculum until college, as it was saved for the remedial students who were judged to not be smart enough to take freshman biology in high school.

I think of all that, and it's no wonder to me that many of my peers in college, and the 101 students I TA'd in grad-school, couldn't do basic algebra, or weren't interested in science, period. To many of them, we geologists are up there in a tower with the clergy, telling them what to think about something that they think they're not smart enough to understand. The students just haven't had enough education prior to your classroom to get it on the first round...

[end rant]

Silver Fox said...

Kim, would a mine tour of some sort help with ideas? (Or it might just be fun/interesting!) I know there are closer mines to you than eastern Nevada, but I can look into arranging something, not knowing at all how fast it could happen.

Lockwood said...

I agree with much of what Joe K. says. In an intro course, you're limited in what you're going to be able to reasonably accomplish. Just getting across the idea that the Earth and its resources are finite is an important achievement. Next: any time a resource is used faster than it's replaced, it will be gone in some finite amount of time. If people understood those two simple little ideas, much of our dysfunctional "decision-making" might stand a chance of being replaced with a little more rationalism.

I hate to see professional geologists get down on themselves for failing to appropriately represent the profession. As a rhetorical question, when do you have an opportunity to present the public at large with a better representation? Because of the way our education system is set up, there are no real national standards. States and local districts have the final say over what is expected. Most states don't demand any real earth science coverage after middle school. And don't get me started on middle school geology curricula- as an example, there's all the mineral ID tests, but never a word on why someone might want to ID the mineral. In other words, there's an overemphasis on trivia and vocabulary for their own sake, but no emphasis on the practical aspects of the discipline. By the time college age students show up, they have vague memories of "the streak test" and a really boring 8th grade science teacher. An intro level science class or two is required, but the choice will be made on the basis of which topics look the least painful rather than which will be most interesting or informative. For teaching and researching geologists to expect that they can remedy our national geo-ignorance is either too optimistic or evidence of hubris- maybe both. With only a BS in geology, I'm painfully aware of the US's lack of understanding of earth science issues, but there is broad ignorance of science generally, and almost a phobia with respect to math. That isn't to say we shouldn't try, but you're fighting a cultural trend and you shouldn't beat yourselves up too hard when things don't go as you hoped.

As for teaching, the question to start with is, "What are the important ideas that I can reasonably expect students of this level to take away from this class?" The next question is "What behaviors/performances will convince me that the students are taking the ideas away?" Then teach in such a way as to elicit those behaviors and performances. Obviously that's an oversimplification, but the choice of what and how needs to start and end with your student audience. Start with with "What are they able to get," and "What do they need to get;" end with "How do I know they got it." Teach to get from start to end. There seems to be wide agreement that "teaching to the test" is a bad thing. But anyone who has really thought about what assessment is and what it represents would agree that teaching without consideration of how you will know the students "got it" is a disservice to them.

I've read enough of your stuff to know that you care deeply, and that you will continue to second guess yourself, and that each term you will try to make things a little better. You will never be quite satisifed with the way things went. That's teaching. And if no one has said this to you lately, you are a hero. Our society loves to ridicule teachers, and it's starting to show. But never forget that we wouldn't be where we are without the long introspective evenings trying to figure out how to make it work just a little bit better this term, put in time and again by people like you. So smile! (It always fogs my eyes a little to tell a teacher that she's a hero- they don't get to hear it as often as they should!)

hypocentre said...

Coal actually has some strange structural properties due to the high levels of dissolved gases it can contain. Unloading it quickly during mining can cause the coal to 'burst' and disintegrate to a fine powder rather than have shear failure. Coal bursts can be preceded by harmonic tremor seismic events and some success has been achieved in preventing bursts by halting mining when a seismic rate threshold is reached.

Kim said...

That's interesting about the harmonic tremor. I know of harmonic tremor from ways to predict volcanic eruptions - is its cause understood? (Or understood well?) I'm asking because volcanoes are another place where fluids are important in fracturing rock (and breaking the rock is one way to make it easier to release the magma).

hypocentre said...

The harmonic tremor like events from coal bursts are very similar to those from volcanoes (emergent onsets with no clear phases). Probably have a similar origin - fluid filled cracks (in the coal case gas as the fluid).