Friday, June 27, 2008

Cruel malware hoax targeting Chinese earthquake fears

Amongst the many e-mails that piled up in my work account, I saw a number with subject headings such as "1000000 dead in Chinese earthquake" or "Terrible earthquake devastated Beijing." I didn't know the senders, I hadn't seen anything about a new earthquake in China on airport televisions, and I hadn't received any messages from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service about a big earthquake in China. (Tonga, yes; China, no.) So I deleted all the messages, figuring they were probably some kind of potentially dangerous spam.

And sure enough, they are. There's information about them on various internet security blogs. This one (mxlogic) has information about the specific malware involved: it's a worm, and only infects your computer if you click on the link in the e-mail, and then attempt to watch the fake video on the linked page.

At least one of my spam e-mails came from a geologic-sounding address, so I figure it's useful to pass the word around: the message is fake. There hasn't been a devastating earthquake in Beijing. (Thank goodness.)

After the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake, this is a particularly cruel hoax.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Have I ever revised a course effectively?

Earlier today, as I was catching up on last week's e-mail, I took a beta version of a survey about how and why I revise courses. I was supposed to give feedback on the survey questions, but I didn't take much time to mull over my answers at the time. I'm still thinking through it, so I'm going to do what I do with half-completed thoughts: blog about them.

One of the survey questions asked about changes that seemed to improve what students learned. And I couldn't come up with a good answer. That's disturbing, because I've revised a lot of courses over the fifteen years I've been teaching, and I would like to think that the courses have gotten better.

I've changed courses for many different reasons. Structural Geology had to change when I moved to Colorado, because my Vermont course was organized around field trips, and although Vermont is a small state, it is not portable. I've taught Plate Tectonics in a four-week January term, and in a twelve-week semester, and different schedules require different organizations. My Earth Systems Science class has been revised to fit general education requirements. I changed Earthquakes and Volcanoes because it was an utter disaster the first time I taught it. (Perhaps I could argue that I was simply trying to give the students the kind of traumatic experience brought on by mass destruction, but no. I just didn't do a good job with the course.) I've changed my departmental writing class to make it serve double duty, as research preparation as well as a writing-in-the-major course. And so on.

Perhaps none of my revisions has seemed dramatically effective because they've been driven by something outside the course - by location or schedule or departmental needs. Maybe I haven't taught the same course in the same way for long enough to have felt the need for a wholesale revision - I've taught something like fourteen sixteen different courses in the past fifteen years, after all. Maybe I need enough stability to have the teaching equivalent of the seven-year itch.

As it is, the one thing that I think has improved my courses is... experience. I've gotten better at explaining things, better at listening to students about what confuses them, better at letting an uncomfortable silence sit while students think about how to respond to a question that I've posed.

And my attempts at major revisions usually cause more problems than they solve, at least the first time around. (I have a bad habit of creating assignments that take approximately twice as much time to complete as I intended. I do that with exams, too. One would think that experience would allow me to write a 50-minute Structure exam... but one would be completely wrong about that.) That makes me hesitant to throw away things that work, and makes me more likely to tinker than to rebuild.

I'm switching to a new intro textbook this year, though, and moving Structure back to fall semester. This might be the fall for dramatic changes.

And then maybe I'll wait until next summer, and see how my little changes work for now.

Looking for a female roommate for GSA in Houston

I just got back from visiting family on the East Coast, and am digging through my work e-mails. One reminded me to register for the GSA annual meeting and book a hotel room, so I did. (Only four hotels still had rooms for the main meeting days!)

Are there women geologists out there who are interested in sharing a hotel room? I'll try to find a roommate through AWG as well, but I figured that there may be women geo-bloggers (or lurking readers) who need roommates as well.

You can send me an e-mail at shearsensibility AT gmail DOT com if you're interested.

(Also, GSA deadlines are really early this year, aren't they? First I nearly missed the abstract deadline, then I forget to book a hotel room early enough...)

Edit: Found somebody.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides in Japan

The rural setting of Saturday's M 6.8 earthquake in northeastern Honshu, Japan* has fortunately meant that many fewer deaths occurred than during the 1995 Kobe earthquake. (From news reports and photos, it looks like landslides were responsible for a lot of the destruction. Dave's landslide blog has photos.)

So the surface is where the destruction is, but I'm also interested in what's going on deeper down. If you use the Google Earth plug-ins for the USGS real-time earthquakes and the Smithsonian Institution's volcanoes, you can see where the fault is compared to the volcanic arc:

It's in the arc. Right in the middle of the arc. One volcano, Kurikoma, lies above the aftershock zone. And it's acting up. (News report here.)

So here are my somewhat random thoughts:

- The earthquake was along a thrust fault. I know of arcs that are extensionally collapsing, which involves normal faults. (The Marianas arc is a good example.) I know of arcs with strike-slip faults running through the line of volcanoes. (The Sumatra fault, for instance, is like this - there's a strike-slip fault that runs along the arc, so the plate movement is partitioned into two zones - subduction at the trench that caused the 2004 tsunami, and strike-slip movement within the arc.) And I know of studies (including one of mine) arguing that thrust faults moved during the growth of ancient plutons. But modern thrust faults in the middle of arcs - not thrust faulting partitioned into the wedge above the subduction zone, or in the back-arc (like in parts of the Andes) - I'm not sure if I've seen a thrust earthquake in an arc before. I know there are thrust earthquakes in the Sea of Japan, and that there is compression between Japan and Asia, so the fault mechanism isn't surprising. But the location is. Is this a case where the magmatism created a weaker zone in the crust and allowed thrust faulting to take place?

- Did the earthquake (either due to stress changes, or due to the passage of seismic waves) cause Kurikoma to start acting up?

- What's going to happen next?

* The Japan Meteorological Agency measured the earthquake as magnitude 7.2, but I don't know which magnitude scale they're using for it. I would rather use moment magnitude consistently to think about earthquake size, and I know that's what the USGS is reporting, so I'll stick with that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wooded Mountains at Dusk

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wooded Mountains at Dusk, 1693 (Qing Dynasty)
Kuncan (1612-1673)

Chinese landscape painting, more than any of the visual arts, captures the way mountains make me feel. I don't know what it is - I know that art historians will point out the small figure in the foreground, the way that the landscape is both beautiful and inhabited. But perhaps this poem by the artist Kuncan explains why his work resonates with me:

I want to go further,
But my legs are bruised and scratched.
The bony rocks appear chiseled,
The pines look as if they had been dyed.
Sitting down, I feel like a small bird,
As I look out at the crowd of peaks gathered before me.
Having ascended the heights to the brink of the abyss,
I hold fast and ponder the need to sincerely face criticism.
Wherever a road ends, I will set myself down,
Wherever a source opens, I will build a temple.
All this suffices to nourish my eyes,
And rest my feet.

I've felt like that while doing field work, from the scratched legs to the need to sincerely face criticism.

Accretionary Wedge #10: Aesthetic Geology

Friday, June 13, 2008

Which town is visited by the most US field camps?

I met up with Ron for dinner tonight. His field camp has just finished their work in the Durango area. I grilled him for information on the spots where they map - I wanted to know why I see so many vans pulled over beside the same big roadcut every spring. (I have never taken my mapping classes to either of the classic Durango field areas, by the way. I have my own favorites, chosen for 1) nice views, 2) variety of rock types, and 3) interesting map geometries - one of them is perfect for getting students to think about features that dip upstream vs downstream.)

During the conversation, I wondered which towns were visited by the largest number of field camps. Some possibilities that I could think of:

Durango, Colorado
Dinosaur, Colorado
Red Lodge, Montana
Jackson, Wyoming (or maybe Hoback Junction or some campground in Yellowstone)
Bishop, California (because the Poleta folds aren't really in a town - I'm cheating and thinking of the UC system's base camp)
Rapid City, South Dakota

I know there are some early field camps that work in Arizona, and there have got to be some classic places in Utah that get a lot of traffic. (Lots of field camps drive through Moab, in part because there aren't many good places to cross the Colorado River, but do many groups stay near there?)

What am I leaving out?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Links: geoscience curricula, and teaching quantitative skills

Two things:

1) There have been a series of workshops and discussions on Building Strong Geoscience Departments that address the questions I discussed in my post yesterday. (And the people involved have more experience than I do - the information ranges from AGI's info on geoscience careers to Kip Hodges' advocacy of something beyond Earth Systems Science. What is it about metamorphic petrologists and Earth Systems, anyway? First Gary Ernst, now Kip Hodges...) (And for constantly changing information, check AGI's workforce page, or sign up to receive their information by e-mail.

2) Alessia at Sismordia is in a lab group that's discussing teaching geophysics to students with a variety of backgrounds. In comments on my post yesterday, she and Chris Rowan both mentioned how challenging this is. (And yes, I agree that it's difficult.) But their comments reminded me that I know about some sources of help (or at least of discussion):

  • The Math You Need project. Eric Baer teaches at a community college, and teamed up with his math department to develop a course that helps intro students improve their math skills while they're taking geology courses. He and Jen Wenner have an NSF grant to turn that experience into something that other geoscience educators can use. Their goal is to create a set of modules (with explanations and exercises) that instructors can plug into their courses. (Eventually they will also have a pre-test that students can take, so that instructors can identify students who need help.) They have a questionnaire about math that geoscientists use - you can help them improve the project by answering it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Teaching Earth Systems?

A couple weeks ago, in a post about sedimentary systems and the future of sedimentary geology, Brian added a comment to the end of his post about teaching earth systems science:

* In terms of a “systems” view, I’m speaking within the context of research activities … that is, conducting new science. A somewhat separate discussion would be implementation of a systems view within the context of geoscience education. This is another can of worms that perhaps my geoblogger colleagues who are educators (Kim, Ron, Callan, etc.) might want to start a thread about. Personally, I’m a strong advocate of appreciating a systems view in scientific investigation … when it comes to education, however, I think the core disciplines of geology (e.g., mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, sedimentology, etc.) are absolutely, positively necessary. In my opinion, an undergraduate requires solid training and experience in the nitty-gritty before integration and interdependence of systems can truly be appreciated. But … like I said, let’s save that for another time … or I’ll tag a willing geoblogger with that. Anybody?

So I've been tagged. (And unlike Ron and Callan, I'm not on the road or in the field at the moment.) And I've been teaching long enough to have discussed restructuring undergraduate majors in two different departments, and I teach introductory Earth Systems Science (although my specialty is a very traditional solid earth subject). But although I was at Stanford when its Earth Systems Science major was developed, I've never taught in that kind of major myself. (I've taught in departments that participated in Environmental Studies majors, but again, I specialize in stuff that happens deep underground.)

I think that introductory courses are a different topic from the structure of a major. Introductory courses are filled with students who don't yet know that they love the geosciences, and in every intro class that I've taught, at least 80% of the students have gone on to major in something else. (Many of them, in fact, were committed to other subjects long before they broke down and finally took that required lab science class.) So I'll leave them for another day, and just talk about majors.

So. What, exactly, is the purpose of a major in college, anyway? To provide students with a set of marketable skills? To train students to become grad students? To challenge students, to push them to think, and leave them more capable of teaching themselves new skills in the future? All of the above? Something else? And if we're training them for jobs or grad school, which jobs, or which grad school specialties?

I guess that if I had to answer the question, I would say "all of the above" and "it depends." Right now, there are lots of jobs for geologists; nineteen years ago, there weren't. Most of the geology majors that I have taught over the past fifteen years are working in other fields right now; most of the students I am teaching right now will probably stay in the field, at least in the near future. We don't want the requirements to change as fast as the price of gold or oil, so we need majors that suit both circumstances.

I don't have a good perspective on the history of the traditional geology curriculum, so I don't know how long mineralogy, petrology, sedimentology/stratigraphy, and structural geology have been seen as the foundation for the discipline. However, I've seen the results of traditional majors. Those four classes are good for teaching students to look at the world in particular ways. Stratigraphy (and related classes, like historical geology and paleontology) develop a sense of deep time. (That's a strength and a weakness - non-geologists get a bit freaked out when they hear that a magnitude 9 earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone is imminent.) Mineralogy transforms rocks from boring grey things into their own little stories (maybe of the mantle, maybe of the deep crust, maybe of ancient soils, and maybe of future wealth), and petrology puts the minerals together into rocks. Structural geology lets us imagine the geometry of the world beneath our feet, and the forces that have given it shape. And in all the classes, students get used to piecing together indirect evidence. (Is it any surprise that geological novels tend to be mysteries, rather than thrillers or hard science fiction?)

So I guess the question might partly be whether those skills are useful. Certainly they are for oil & gas exploration and for the search for ore deposits. I've spent years arguing that they are important for understanding water, as well. (I've also argued that some kind of surficial geology class belongs in the core curriculum. I'm partly biased because my geomorphology class was the one that convinced me to declare geology as my major, but still - humans live on the surface. It's silly to ignore what's right at our feet.) But are they sufficient? And do they prepare students to deal with the physical parts of the ocean, or with the interactions between the land and the things that live on it, or with the atmosphere and climate?

I don't know whether the Earth Systems approach is a good way to integrate an understanding of the solid earth with and understanding of water, air, and life. I agree with Brian that it's important to understand specifics as well as the big picture, and I worry that interdisciplinary majors tend to cover many things without going into depth about anything. And the solid earth is so foreign that I fear that, for the students who study Earth Systems or Environmental Studies, it remains "just rock," grey and brown stuff for water to flow over and lichen to grow upon. But maybe the point of the Earth Systems major isn't to train people who study the Earth. And maybe, depending on what the students want to do with their lives, that's ok.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Unfinished business

I've spent the last week rearranging numbers in Microsoft Excel.

This isn't the sort of thing that one tells people in order to sell the glamorous life of a geologist*. But it feels useful and productive. See, I should have done this seven years ago. Yes, that's right... I'm working on a draft of a paper that has languished for seven years.

Let me back up. My first teaching job involved many changes: I moved to a different coast, I went from a research fellowship to teaching five courses plus labs per year, and I started doing research in a new mountain belt (and a new metamorphic grade and tectonic setting). I figured that broad experience was good for someone who wanted to teach (and whose job involved a grand total of nine different new course preps in the first four years). I knew it would be difficult to find new research projects in a new field area, but I didn't realize how difficult it would be to earn the respect of the people already working in the area. I worked anyway, cobbling together money from small grants to pay undergrads for their field time, and collecting data with instruments at my institution. After seven years, I had started publishing in the new area, and I was trying to figure out how to get NSF funding for research with undergrads. I had tried three different programs as a PI without success, so I tried something new: I networked. There's a program called Research Opportunity Awards that allows professors at teaching-intensive colleges to get money tied to an existing, funded NSF grant. I found people from whom I wanted to learn, I contacted them, and I wrote a proposal.

And then I didn't get tenure.

Even though I landed another academic job within three months, I was faced with moving away from my field area and from my instruments, to a new place, with new preps and different expectations. I probably should have apologized to NSF and the PIs (and I did talk to the PIs about backing out), but the PIs thought I could pull it off. So I spent the summer between jobs doing lab work and modeling work at two different institutions.

And then I dropped the ball. Six courses a year, plus field camp, left me exhausted and ready to stare at some walls. Plus I wasn't teaching courses that related to my old research, and students wouldn't work with me in a field area on the other side of the country. There wasn't even that much pressure to publish for tenure here - publishing on pedagogy or as a third author on my old PhD work, and writing equipment grants with other members of my department, was fine for this job. And then I had a baby, and I had even more responsibilities here, and nothing forcing me to finish the old work.

And, to be honest, I couldn't face the Vermont research. It depressed me to even open the draft of the paper, or to look at the thin sections or the spread sheets. Research isn't just a matter of working hard - it involves inspiration, and although anger may be a useful emotion for some purposes, it doesn't lead to great research.

But I've been here for eight years now. I've got tenure. I know my courses. I've got local research projects with senior thesis students, and I've been developing local research projects for intro students, as well. And my son is five, and doesn't need me as constantly as he did as an infant and a toddler. And I got a tiny internal grant to get a little more microprobe data. And now... it's time to put it together, to finish writing the paper that's been sitting on my hard drive for seven years or more.

I've searched georef to see what's been done. The only things published in the past eight years were work that was in progress in 2000. (In fact, one is co-authored by one of my old academic advisees. Yay for her!) Perhaps it's a sign that my work was never cutting edge - but then it never aspired to be. Not all research needs to be published in Science or Nature - sometimes it is worthwhile to tell the world what one knows about an obscure, overgrown corner of the world.

And sometimes it is simply worthwhile to take care of unfinished business.

*I realize that it is unlikely that anyone would mistake me for "one of the coolest, sexiest men alive." However, I might be fun to have breakfast with, if you've got good enough coffee.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rocks don't suffer deformation...

...they enjoy it.

Don't believe me? Then ask this muscovite, staurolite, and sillimanite, which have had the pleasure of growing in the space where an andalusite crystal has pulled apart:

Image with labels:

And a little explanation. Andalusite is one variety of aluminum silicate (Al2SiO5). There are three minerals with the same chemical composition: andalusite, sillimanite, and kyanite. They're stable at different temperature and pressures - andalusite is stable where it's hot at shallow depths (and is typically found in sediments that have been baked by the intrusion of magma); kyanite is found at higher pressures (that is, deeper in the crust); sillimanite is found at the highest temperatures (including in rocks that nearly melted). This rock tells a story: it was heated at shallow depths, and then was stretch while it was heated (and, I think, buried a little more).

(Elli, this is from Gallup Mills again. I'm working on probe data. The garnets have really cool zoning.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Advice for students looking for a terminal M.S.?

I teach undergrads. I advise undergrad research theses and then... that's it. But a lot of my current students go on to Masters programs, and eventually work in industry or in government. I'm not sure I'm a good adviser for them, though - I went straight to a PhD, with nothing but a summer internship at the USGS for practical experience in the field. So I although I've got ideas about what students should look for in a PhD program, I'm not very confident about helping find a good M.S. program.

My advice about grad school has always been that the research project will be the real focus. Classes won't be as important as for undergrad (and grades won't be the point - learning and using the material will be). The research project builds independence, critical thinking, field and lab and computer skills - it's where you do science.

But is it, for an M.S. student? Every M.S student that I've known does research - but does it foster the independence that takes one from student to professional? Or does M.S. research exist more because academia sees the M.S. as an intermediate step towards a PhD and post-docs and eventual professordom? Or does M.S. research exist because universities expect professors to do research, and students help accomplish it?

(As an aside - sometimes I wonder whether undergraduate research exists for the students, or for the professors, as well. It's hard to judge professors on teaching and mentoring - publications and grants are easier to count.)

Beyond discussion of the research, I tell students to get a feel for the kind of mentor their adviser would be. Some students thrive when given independence; some need direction, and don't mind having the adviser drive the conclusions of the project. And for M.S. programs, especially, I tell students to consider the connections between their program and potential future employers. Some schools have good connections to the USGS or to state surveys; others are well-connected to the environmental industry, or to mining, or to oil & gas. Some have connections in some areas, but not in others.

And I tell students that an M.S. doesn't have to define their life forever - people switch sub-fields (or even entire disciplines) after a Masters degree. (It's more difficult to change directions after a PhD, though it's not impossible, especially to move into the business world.)

Am I giving reasonable advice, or am I missing something critical here?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Happy blogiversary to me

I started posting to this blog a year ago today. I guess that makes this a time for reminiscing or something, so I'll give it a try.

I like the geoblogosphere. It can be a little like being at a conference without having to drive or fly. There are the discussions about current research. There are the discussions about world events (especially geologic events), and about extraterrestrial events. There are great pictures. There's a little catching up with people. There's talk about life as a scientist, about kids and theses and dissertations and jobs and why geology doesn't get any respect from the other sciences, even in a world with earthquakes and volcanoes and landslide dams threatening collapse. No beer, and none of that cold scared feeling in the gut before giving a talk, but it's still both social and scientific.

For me, personally, blogging has helped me think about teaching, both about pedagogy and about content. It's given me a reason to dig through both old and new papers (even if I rarely blog about them). It's given me ideas to use in classes - "Where on Google Earth" might return when I teach the intro class again in the fall. It hasn't given me new research ideas, but the act of writing has made my writing faster, I think, when I've got things that need to get done. (In the three work days that I had last week, I wrote a GSA abstract and a grant proposal. I don't normally work that fast. But I've found it's a lot easier to write short proposals, at least, when I've been writing and thinking a lot.) Nobody at work knows that I blog, but when they find out (and they will, eventually), I'm not going to be embarrassed about it.

So I'll keep doing it. I've thought about moving to Wordpress (because it seemed like such a good idea when Brian did it last fall), but I'm not going to do it now. (I haven't figured out how to add a picture to my header here, and I'm trying to sell a house. Maybe I'll do it next year.)