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.


Anonymous said...

"'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"

Exactly. I fear that the discussion is becoming an either/or ... that is, either your a specialist, or your a generalist (i.e., systems person). I disagree with this view. I think that the only way to really, truly appreciate the systems view is to have some in-depth knowledge of part of that system. I think they are linked.

Perhaps one with an "Earth systems" degree that then goes on to an M.S./Ph.D. will then get that in-depth training/experience. But, if they don't, they may feel a bit overwhelmed when they start a job where they may not have the luxury of pondering big-picture connections and they need to perform something specific. But, I suppose on-the-job training might fill that role. I don't know ... interesting discussion though.

Arr Cee said...

I've just completed my first year at uni (earth science, geography and environmental science). My earth science lectures did present the systems perspective to us, but this was not over-emphasised. Environmental science very much emphasised the systems approach.
I feel I've received quite a balanced geological education so far through a combination of the "nitty-gritty" and the systems concept. That said, I'm not being educated within a major/minor system: my honours subject is essentially decided in 1st year- it must be one out of the three subjects taken in first year (or two of them for joint honours).

Kim said...

I don't know how many of the Earth Systems/Environmental Studies students go on to work as scientists. At Stanford, I think most of the geology majors during my time went on to graduate degrees, but I'm not sure about the ESS students. (Do you know if Stanford tracks them? I've seen one at GSA, but that isn't a scientific survey by any means. And Earth Systems students may be more likely to go to AGU, especially if they work in oceanic or atmospheric science.) Very few of the Middlebury students went to grad school, and the only ones I've kept track of were traditional geology majors (and, if they were my advisees, they were pressured to take min/pet/structure/sed/geomorph). At Fort Lewis, both the Geology and Environmental Geology majors have been getting jobs in industry, but Env Geo is essentially a traditional geology major with groundwater, engineering geology, and env geochemistry in place of optical mineralogy and paleontology.

I think a lot of the environmental studies students that I've known have gone into careers in writing or policy, rather than science. (Or they're working on Wall Street and skiing a lot.)

It would be interesting to see a survey of the undergrad degrees of AGU members. I would expect a lot of physics and geology, but I'm curious what degrees lead students into atmospheric research. (I've suggested a physics major/geology or geography minor to some students.)

1&2 - my impression is that the British system becomes specialized much earlier than the US system does - the dangers of over-generalization might not exist there.

Anonymous said...

I was sitting down in my office this morning reading the AAPG Bulletin and I happen to run a cross an article with my former professor in it... Well I decided to see what she was blogging about and I have to say that I am hooked now.

You know that you where my Earth Systems Science Professor. I would agree that it has its place as a first glance at geology. I would say that not a week goes by that I don't think of rocks as those picture perfect / best case scenario rocks that I first saw in there. Sometimes I get caught up in looking TOO close at the rocks and not taking a step back and asking myself if it is even worth the time. Does it increase the overall understanding of the system? Sometimes a 50ft of rock is just a 50ft of rock; and not 5 transgressive / regressive sequences. That Systems class is defiantly a cornerstone in the foundation of a good structurally sound geological career.

Keep up the good work I look forward to the upcoming blogs, and don’t be afraid on dropping in a line about how the class of ’06 was probably the greatest one ever.

Elli said...

There is a session at GSA in Houston this fall entitled "What Should Students be Learning in Our Geology Classrooms?" that might address a few of these issues.

But I always thought the most important thing we taught students was how to look at a problem critically. To (mis)quote a professor of mine, you'll usually have a reference book to look up a specific fact. What I focus on is that the students learn what to do with the information they look up (e.g. what does all of that information listed in DHZ mean?) So, beyond teaching our students min, pet, structure, and sed/strat (and isn't it scary that I teach 3 of the 4?), we also need to include elements on how to analyze published papers, how to write a reasonable scientific report / paper, and, maybe most importantly, that science is not static.

I would claim that the class of 99 was the best, but I think less that 25% of us are still geologists...

Alessia Maggi said...

A similar debate is happening at the moment in the Geophysics circles at our lab. We are being asked to open up geophysics teaching to students from a variety of backgrounds, including a number who have little or no mathematical training.

The question is how to follow these courses with a master's or PhD program that necessarily involves a great deal of mathematical analysis? As for the Earth Systems debate, the jury is still out on this one.

Chris R said...

Alessia - I can tell you from harrowing personal experience that trying to teach geophysics to people with no mathematical background is a complete waste of time for all involved.

Anonymous said...

The cynic's view: A good major program is one that either attracts more majors or at least does not discourage recruitment. Unfortunately, external pressures on departments that teach "difficult" subjects (anything requiring actual verbal or mathematical skill) tend to make the cynic's criterion paramount.

Anonymous said...

I did a course which tried to teach geophysics at a senior undergrad level without a rigorous mathematical background. I really really wanted to understand, but couldn't do it. Horrible experience. Unfortunately the department had to offer it, because mathematics isn't suggested to first year students interested in geology. I wish it had been.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comments... to follow the courses yes, you need some mathematics but the level required to get through basic geophysics is not that high (you need complex numbers, some potential theory, so integral theorems etc, very basic Fourier analysis and linear PDEs, almost no serious numerical analysis is required unless you are doing fluids). Most senior people in observational geophysics are not way better in math than an average engineering undergrad student in a good college, say Princeton. Many people working in the field of geophysics are de facto considered to be capable in mathematics, this is a myth... Apart from theoretical geophysicists and numerical guys who formulate and write propagation and inversion codes etc, most people in geophysics who call themselves geophysicists or seismologists are at very modest levels of mathematics . They are hard working people and can write small codes, modify little bits of other codes without understanding the real math in there, they may understand basics of Fourier analysis or some simple differential equations but they rarely VERY RARELY directly do anything with the mathematical stuff, 95 percent of them can not write an elastic wave propagation code if the existing codes were taken away from them. Most people in the "kitchen" of geophysics spend most of their times writing scripts to read this or that format of data, apply a stacking algorithm code that they got from someone else with updating the output formattings etc etc.. And what they do is very important and critical but not very mathematical. Many of the people in observational geophysics have not written a finite difference code, say to solve a Poisson equation, in their lives, even the ones with PhDs, in that respect from maths point of view they are way below people with engineering PhDs. So if you did not study lots of maths but want to do geophysics, please carry on !! do not be afraid to come to geophysics, a large part of the community is not much better than you. If someone is clever and is passionate to learn and has studied just basic calculus and linear algebra (very very basic), he or she can learn sophisticated stuff in the hands of able teachers, they should not be afraid.