Thursday, July 31, 2008

One world, one map... OneGeology is here

Last year at GSA, I saw one of the most evangelical presentations I've ever seen about technology. (I realize that I've never been to Macworld or a Linux conference, but hang with me here.) Ian Jackson of the British Geological Survey talked about bringing geologic maps to the web, through a project called OneGeology. The goal was to create an online geologic map of the world, at a scale of 1:1 million. It's a more difficult job than it might seem - geologic maps can be considered classified information, because they provide information about a country's natural resources. And on a more petty level, geologists working across borders have a tendency to give the same rock different formal names, which makes compiling simplified regional maps difficult. (The boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire isn't exactly along a fault, but it sure seems like it is from the names and interpreted ages of the units.)

Last year, they were still in the process of getting countries to participate.

And now, the map is live. The web site says it will be officially launched next week, on August 6, at the International Geological Congress in Oslo, Norway. But some maps are already available.

For instance, here's the 1:1.5 million geologic map of Europe, zoomed in on the Alps:

On the map of Afghanistan, I can choose an "information" (well, metadata) tool, click on a unit, and read its description.

This is so cool. When I was in college, one of my favorite jobs as a departmental assistant was filing the maps. It was like taking little trips all over the world. As a teacher, I'm constantly waving my arms about some place that the students have never been, without the aid of a map. (Not effective pedagogy, though perhaps good practice for playing charades.) And worse, sometimes students ask questions about places I know only the broadest tectonic information about. (Afghanistan, for instance, or Iraq. Some of my students have been there. I haven't.) And now I'll be able to pull up a web page and show them the maps, and we will be able to try to figure out what's going on together.

This is so cool. (I wonder if this is what it felt like when Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp first published their beautiful painting of the topography of the ocean floor?)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Whiplash in science reporting and the "textbook science" problem

Reporting on hot scientific research has got to be tough. Every conflicting bit of information is worth a journal article (in a high-profile journal like Nature or Science if possible, but the disciplinary journals will do if necessary). The articles are written as if the conclusions are the last word on the subject, and the press releases tend to emphasize the revolutionary (or in current NSF-speak, "transformative") aspects of the work. The common understanding that underlies the research is taken for granted in the articles, so that even if the writing is clear and concise, it's hard for someone to walk in from another expertise (even another scientific expertise) and make sense of what the journal article says.

It's no wonder that reporting on climate change (or, for that matter, anything to do with medicine) gives readers a case of mental whiplash. (Articles from yesterday on the subject: Andy Revkin in the New York Times, Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog, John Fleck in the Albuquerque Journal, Real Climate.) Part of the problem, as John Fleck points out, is a disconnect between the science that people learn as students and the way science is done on the cutting edge:

One of my great frustrations as a science journalist is what I take to be the fundamental public misunderstanding of science.

It arises from textbooks, where were most of us have most of our brief contact with the world of science. Textbooks are about fixed bodies of knowledge - the questions that have been settled. But real science, out where working researchers poke at questions day in and day out, "is this turbulent interface between what we know and what we don't know," as atmospheric physicist Andy Dessler once told me.
That got me thinking. Because textbooks are usually part of classes, and that means that teaching (especially introductory courses) is part of the problem. (And I know one of my commenters last week said that it's probably hubris to expect to change the world through teaching intro classes, but if we're part of the problem, I guess we've also got to be part of the solution.)

The problem is that students don't learn about how scientists really work in an intro class, as Anne Egger pointed out in her talk at the Teaching Intro Geoscience workshop. (Powerpoint file alert!) She argued that we should find ways to teach the real process of doing geoscience - not just the cartoon version of The Scientific Method that kids memorize in high school, but the real way that geoscientists try to make sense of the world. (I would add some examples: Why do we do field work, and what do we see, and how is that science, anyway? How can we test hypotheses about things that have already happened? How do we decide that we were wrong about something - or how does the community decide that an explanation is wrong? What happens when different approaches imply different explanations? And what are models, and are they really just exercises in curve-ftting?)

The workshop generated some suggestions. I'm curious whether the geoblogosphere has had experience with any of these approaches, and whether you've found them useful.

I could divide them into a few categories: 1) having students experience some parts of the scientific process, 2) introducing students to research that you (or grad students, or undergrads, or visiting speakers) are doing, and 3) being explicit about where ideas and data come from (including discussing history). I've used all of these a little, but except for the first one, I haven't given a lot of thought to my goals. I won't talk about the first one, because that's a blog post in itself, and I'm talking about it at GSA, but I can give some rambling thoughts about the other two.

2) Introducing students to researchers. Anne does this explicitly at Stanford. She's got great opportunities - cutting-edge researchers to talk to classes, a lecture series featuring grad student work-in-progress, etc. (Stanford isn't called a research university for nothing.) I've got fewer opportunities - undergrad researchers, a couple of Four Corners Geological Society talks a month, and my own research on topics I've cut out of my intro class. I've encouraged students to go to FCGS talks (and given extra credit for it), but I don't get enough participation to judge whether it helps or not. If I wanted the intro students to think about how the speakers did the science, as opposed to just absorbing the conclusions, I would need to get the students to reflect on the research. I'm not sure exactly how to do that, but it might be worth thinking about.

3) Using history of ideas. Geologists are uniformitarian, after all; the past helps us understand the future. A lot of intro books try to explain plate tectonics by going through the history of the development of the theory. And, well... I don't think they succeed. The theory was developed in a really roundabout kind of way - the key data that changed people's minds in the late 60's, those magnetic stripes on the ocean floor... well, they're weird. It's hard to tell the story without getting bogged down. (And I know that students have left my discussions of flipping magnetic fields more confused than they were than they started.) And I'm not sure that the textbook stories make the most important points, at least when it comes to understanding what's going on in unresolved debates.

I've have more luck talking about history of ideas in my upper level plate tectonics class. I've got more time (and I make them read some of Naomi Oreskes' work). And the tectonics students are advanced enough that I can make them read and discuss recent papers that have generated debate. But with the intro students - making sense of moving plates is difficult enough. (And, well... something controversial in the 60's doesn't seem very immediate. Kids these days...)

The history just doesn't work very neatly as a narrative. It's messy. (There's a reason why AGU meetings and movies are different. And it's not just that women talk to one another at AGU.) And the work that led to plate tectonics was collaborative, as well - there were contributions from many different researchers with different expertises, and some of the best ideas occurred to different groups at the same time. (So there isn't a clear protagonist, a personality whose ideas triumphed in the end.) And that's part of the point that I would want to make, so I wouldn't want to sacrifice it to tell a good story.

Anyone had better luck than I have? (Or any students have examples of things that worked for them?)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Survey for women geoscientists: why leave industry?

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists wants to know why so many women geoscientists leave the energy industry. They've got a web survey to find out. They are asking for any women geoscientists to participate, whether or not they've ever worked in an energy industry.

(If you're like me and haven't worked in industry, the survey is really really short.)

M 5.4 Los Angeles quakes - maps from google earth

Andrew and Jim Repka have already talked about today's LA basin earthquake. (And they got through to the moment tensor solution: a combination of right-lateral strike-slip and thrust, a snapshot of the tectonics of the LA region all in one moderate earthquake rupture.)

Here are maps from Google Earth and the USGS. Faults are color-coded based on how recently they are known to have had earthquakes. Red is historic, orange is younger than around 10,000 years old, and green and blue are somewhat older, but still young enough to worry a nervous geologist.

Here's the same information, but zoomed in:

It's not on a mapped fault, but that isn't surprising: the thrust earthquakes in LA (such as the 1994 Northridge EQ) tend to be on "blind" thrusts - faults that don't cut the surface. (They do, however, tend to raise the ground surface and create hills and mountains. Notice the topography around the aftershocks.)

It's also between two segments of mapped faults, and near the end of one of them. The geometry of the earthquake rupture makes sense there - the rocks near the tip of the right-hand fault (orange on map) should be getting compressed. If the orange fault is active. Which I'm willing to bet it is. (On a geologic time scale, at least. I can't work out possible stress changes in my head, so I'm not making an earthquake prediction.)

The baby and the bathwater: in which I get carried away with course design

So I've got a new intro textbook. I wasn't inclined to change books - staying with the same one means that students have access to used copies, and saving the students money has seemed more worthwhile than the minor differences I've seen in new textbooks. But my old textbook was going to a new edition anyway, and the author of this textbook called me over at GSA and gave me a really good sales pitch. (I admire his pedagogy and have been stealing his ideas for several years, and the book uses pictures from my area for many of the illustrations. It seemed like a good fit for the class.)

The good thing about the book is that it uses a different approach, one that appeals to me, and one that the authors argue will encourage students to actively use the book. (As more than a paperweight, I mean.) I've talked to enough students about what they use and don't use in classes - apparently books are for people over 40, and I'm "old school" if I prefer to read than to watch videos on YouTube - that I have a reasonable hope that the authors are right.

The bad thing about the book is that I want students to use it as more than an expensive paperweight, and that means working with the style and logical flow of the book. The style won't be that much of a problem - as I said, I've been stealing the author's teaching techniques anyway. But the logical flow. Ah. There's where it gets tricky.

With 19 chapters in a book and 14 weeks in a semester, I'm not going to cover everything. And the course is Earth Systems Science, rather than Physical Geology, which means (in my case) that I'm spending more time talking about surface processes, oceans, weather, and climate than I might otherwise do. Add to that the fact that I've got a sequence of labs that partially build on one another (and that involve a sequence of related projects - Powerpoint file alert). And... well, it gets tricky.

I'm thinking of doing some radical things. Like minimizing my favorite parts of geology (structure, metamorphism, and continental tectonics). Or worse, relegating discussion of geologic time to reading and a homework assignment to be done while I'm off at a conference. (Why worse? Well, this could be the only exposure they have to geology, and Deep Time is one of those fundamental concepts in geology, and way too many Americans think it's reasonable to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old. And 6000 years is so young, geologically speaking, that any volcano or fault or floodplain that was active in the past 10,000 years could well be a problem today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or in the next 1000 years, because that's essentially tomorrow to a geologist.)

On the other hand, it's not like my current discussions of geologic time are very effective. (Clear, yes. Convincing, to someone who doesn't want to believe? Nope.) And we've got a Historical Geology class. And fossils are... well, we've all got our strengths, and fossils aren't one of mine. And the homework assignment looks like a good way to assess whether students really can learn from the book alone, without help from my lecture.

So... am I failing Geology and Society if I skip ahead to surface processes, and leave students to struggle with geologic time? Or am I just doing what I've got to do?

(And if I don't talk about continental tectonics, do I risk losing the excitement that comes when a professor is really excited about something? Or am I safe, because I'm hyper enough in the classroom that nobody will know that I think most shales are much prettier after they're heated to 500 degrees C?)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Metamorphic rocks of "Middle Earth": boring, or magical?

I love movies with big landscapes, and the New Zealand landscapes of The Lord of the Rings are some of my favorites. So I just had to click on Brian's shared link to a news post, linking to a Discovery Channel article about 'Middle Earth' Mountains: Steep and Strong.

Executive summary: New Zealand has steep mountains but few landslides. What gives? (Or rather, what doesn't give?)

The answer is: metamorphic rocks. Or rather, the answer is the rapid uplift along the Alpine Fault, which has brought hot young rocks to the surface very rapidly. Many other places with metamorphic rocks (such as New England) have much gentler topography, because they aren't tectonically active. But New Zealand is blessed with the best of both worlds: an active plate boundary, and rapidly exhumed metamorphic rocks.*

Not all metamorphic rocks are strong - many break along cleavage or foliation planes, weakened by flaky sheet silicates (such as biotite, muscovite, and chlorite). But the weakest rocks, those with a lot of sheet silicates, come from metamorphism of aluminum-rich clays. If you metamorphose something that hasn't undergone much weathering - say, a sedimentary rock with a lot of volcanic fragments like a greywacke** - there will be fewer sheet silicates (especially muscovite).

So what are these strong rocks that can hold up spectacular mountains without failing in landslides?

A new survey of the mountain ranges that form the spine of New Zealand confirms the steepest are made almost entirely of tough but otherwise unexciting rocks called greywackes and schists. (Source:

Ta-da! Greywackes (or maybe meta-greywackes?) and schists. And...

Hold on a minute. What was that modifying phrase?

...tough but otherwise unexciting...

Unexciting? Unexciting?

Those, my friends, are fighting words. (As bad as the gratuitous volcano slander happening on ScienceBlogs.)

And worse, I can't blame a biologist or the faceless media for the slander. It came from an avalanche researcher... a fellow geoscientist:

"They're pretty boring rocks," confirmed avalanche and landslide researcher Oliver Korup of the Swiss Federal Research Institutes in Davos, Switzerland. They are simply petrified deep sea sediments that have been pushed up to form the mountains, he said. "They don't even have fossils."

Ok, then. Let's take a look at what they're calling boring:

(Images are screencaptures from The Fellowship of the Ring. There's obvious CGI on the second one, but the rocks, I suspect, are real.)

If these are boring rocks, I don't think I could handle the adrenaline rush from seeing exciting ones.

It's not just that metamorphic rocks are strong. It's that they remember. They've been through a lot - they still contain traces of their history as sedimentary rocks, sometimes in their textures, sometimes only in their chemical composition. They've been buried and heated and squashed, but they haven't succumbed to melting (or at least, not entirely). Their minerals tell the story of their burial and exhumation; their structures tell of the strains that they have endured. It's hard to tease out their stories, and much of what they experienced has been erased by more recent events. But still - these are rocks worth understanding. These are rocks with sisu.***

So no, it's not elfin magic that makes the mountains of New Zealand strong. It's the magic of things that seem boring and simple on the surface. More hobbit than elf, probably, in Tolkien's world. But wonderful, all the same.

*Chris Rowan did his dissertation on paleomagnetism in New Zealand, and although he is probably less likely to sing the praises of metamorphic rocks than I am (because metamorphic rocks are lousy candidates for paleomag), he knows the tectonics much better than I do.

**Why do many online definitions of "greywacke" describe it as a primarily Pale[a]ozoic rock? Is it because the definitions were written by British geologists, and greywacke is associated with mountain-building, and Britain was shaped by Paleozoic mountain-building? I bet the New Zealand greywackes aren't Paleozoic...

***Thanks to Joe Kopera for introducing me to the word sisu. A Finnish word that can be used equally for metamorphic rocks and some of my favorite literary characters - I love it.

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?

Monday, July 21, 2008

The academic job search... circa 1992

I've moved, I have internet access (and - gasp - TV), and I'm finally unpacking The Office. In the process, I found a box of Important Life Information that I accumulated between 1989 and 2000. Old credit card receipts (including one for slide film from 1994), information about an internship at the USGS, a letter welcoming me to my first graduate housing (received about a month before it was closed by the Loma Prieta earthquake)...

...and advice for getting an academic job, in the form of two brochures from Stanford's Career Planning and Placement Center (CPPC). (Yes, a photocopied brochure. What do you mean, didn't they have a web page?)

So I give you: the advice and the reality, circa 1992-1993. If you are currently freaking out about job searches, the take-home message is that advice is all well and good, but sometimes you've just got to make your own way.

The advice (mauve, because even in 1992 it was clear that jobs weren't as easy to get as the advice implied):


  • ...Give a paper, poster session, or organize a panel at a national conference.
  • Read job announcements in your field.
  • Learn all the possible sources of job announcements.
The reality:
  • Give a talk at a regional conference in which you work around to a conclusion that your data are really excruciatingly bad.
  • ...Work on a draft of your CV and a basic letter of application.
  • Think of who your good reference letter writers will be.
  • Get employment file packet from the CPPC and set up a reference file if your department does not assist graduate students this way.
  • Spend late nights in the argon lab, trying to nail down some data that are actually worthwhile.
  • Spend other late nights in the probe lab.
  • Go to see the Grateful Dead at Shoreline.
  • Start work on a paper for a special volume built around the session at the regional conference.
  • ...Start applying - you may need to request transcripts from the Registrar's office.
  • Attend the CPPC programs on the academic job search or see videotapes of former programs at CPPC or check these out from the Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • Practice interviews with peers or faculty.
  • ...Prepare and practice a job talk.
  • ...Keep a list of questions by the phone to ask when you are called for an interview.
  • Decide with advisor that the one paper should be two papers.
  • Submit abstract to an international meeting, in hopes of meeting people who might be good to know in a year or two.
  • ...Don't immediately accept the first offer, unless you are sure it is the one you want most.
  • Find out more about what to negotiate from your advisor or recently appointed faculty in your field.
  • Don't despair if you don't get the offer you want - some tenure-track and one year positions come up late in the year.
  • Talk with your advisor and CPPC counselors about best strategies for waiting until next year's job markt --
  • OR accept the best offer and thank everyone who helped you!

  • Meet with committee to discuss progress. Tell them about paper #1 (submitted) and paper #2 (being revised). Ask for advice about what to do next. Be told to "finish."
  • Freak out.
  • Frantically flip through job ads listed on bulletin board. (I wasn't subscribed to EOS or Geotimes.)
  • Find an ad for a temporary job at a private liberal arts college in a cool place. Apply.
  • Get a call from the chair of the search committee, saying that they only want to interview one person, and that person is you.
  • Frantically prepare job talk. Hope that slides are readable on first try. (No powerpoint yet.)
  • Buy dress suit. Find shopping at Macy's more traumatizing than anything in grad school so far.
  • Go on interview.
  • Totally blow interview. Be confused about what courses are involved, give an awkward talk, screw up a question that's personally important to the interviewer.
  • Begin to wonder what happened about that one-person interview thing.
  • Get a call from assistant search chair, explaining that another person was hired, and suggesting that you apply for jobs at research universities, because you don't appear enthusiastic about teaching.
  • Go into another grad student office and sob for a while. Get a very useful pep talk.
  • Start looking through job postings again. Apply for three more jobs.
  • See one more job ad that appears written with you in mind. Apply for it, remembering to express as much enthusiasm as possible without exclamation points.
  • Get a call from chair of the department from the last ad. Ask lots of questions about courses to be taught.
  • Run into advisor who says "Department Chair X called and wants to know if you are going to finish this year." Ask advisor if she lied for you. (Advisor answered that she told the truth: I had two papers finished and could defend this summer.)
  • Study the Geologic Map of Vermont instead of going to graduation.
  • Go on interview. Ask lots of enthusiastic questions about roadcuts. Make a point to say "yes, I can do that" to all questions.
  • Fly home. Answer phone before putting down suitcase. Accept job offer on the spot.
  • Find one day in which all committee members will be in town.
  • Revise tables.
  • Try to get figures to print.
  • Revise tables again.
  • Kick printer.
  • Go for run.
  • Kick printer again.
  • Defend.
  • Deliver dissertation to Kinko's.
  • Go to Phish show in Berkeley.
  • Pack.
  • Move.
  • Prepare for classes with three days to go before term begins.
I wonder how much the advice and the reality have changed. Probably there's more advice to do post-docs before applying for jobs. And advice about checking out possible jobs via the web. I don't know whether the advice matches the reality any more than it did fifteen years ago, though.

Job opportunity: intro geology in Durango (adjunct)

Our longterm adjunct just got an offer he couldn't refuse to return to mining geology, so we're looking for someone to teach at Fort Lewis this academic year (fall and spring). He's currently scheduled to teach Earth Systems Science, Physical Geology, and an upper lever interdisciplinary general education course called Resources and the Environment during fall semester. (There's some flexibility in the courses - our Mineralogy prof is on sabbatical in the fall, so if you love to teach Mineralogy or into natural disasters for non-majors, mention it.) Our current adjunct has an M.S., so I think we would consider hiring people with M.S. degrees or higher. It will involve a lot of teaching, but could be a good job for a recent PhD who needs teaching experience, a recent M.S. who wants to check out academia, or anyone whose life goal is to live in Durango. (Ski! Snowboard! Kayak! Mountain bike! Rock climb! Soak in hot springs! Live surrounded by geology that looks like this and includes sedimentary rocks of all ages except Ordovician, old granites and gneisses, young volcanics, deformed metaconglomerates, gold, natural gas, coal, braided and meandering streams, several different types of mass movements, a couple glacial moraines... and that's only the stuff that we regularly use in teaching.)

If you're interested, send me an e-mail (shearsensibility AT gmail DOT com, or google my name and find my work e-mail), and I'll put you in touch with the department chair. (Adjunct hires generally don't involve formal job searches and ads, so we are searching our informal networks. And my informal network includes this blog.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In which I fail at liveblogging

I'm at an NSF-NAGT-Cutting Edge workshop on Teaching Introductory Geoscience in the 21st Century, I've got wireless internet access, and I'm proving to be an utter failure at even attempting to liveblog anything.

So, more than two days into the workshop, let me try to summarize what's going on:

- On Monday, Barb Tewksbury led a brainstorming session about what long-term effects we wanted to achieve in our introductory courses. (That is, longterm beyond convincing poor unsuspecting students to major in geology.) The list is here. And then, of course, we were challenged to think about how to transform our courses to actually do these things.

- Yesterday, we talked about ways to design courses other than as a sequence of physical geology topics. Some of the examples were based around local geology, some were aimed at particular audiences (teachers, engineers, business students... depending on the institution). Some were based on particular topics, such as sustainability or the geology and human history of a particular place. I moderated a session about using long-term projects, though I felt like a bit of an imposter in the session - my course is a survey course, but I let a project get out of control.

In the afternoon, Anne Egger led a discussion about ways to show intro students how geologists do science. (It's complicated, because actually doing science doesn't feel much like the Scientific Method that gets taught in high school science books. Chris Rowan wrote a great post about it last year, but I think there's more to it than that. Someday, I swear, I will post about the role of models in hypothesis-testing in the Earth Sciences...) And then we were challenged to think about revising our courses. I confess that I wasn't very productive; I wasn't ready to throw out my existing course, and my tinkering started with looking at the timing of GSA and contemplating moving around topics. Not the point, perhaps, but I'm trying to teach a survey course more effectively, rather than re-think the existence of survey courses.*

- Today, we focused on specific activities. We spent the morning evaluating our own activities, and spent the afternoon hearing about good ideas from other people. (It made me wish I was teaching an intro course based around tectonics; I want to use GPS data with intro students.) I won't link to specific activities right now - we're supposed to be revising them, and some people talked about ways they were working on changing the activities they submitted. (And I decided to submit a topographic maps lab that I wanted to make better. I meant to work on it tonight, but I'm blogging instead.)

Tomorrow we're discussing some of the Big Things that we keep saying we want to work on in our classes - stuff we say we want to teach, like communication, reading, and other skills, and stuff we want to change, like student attitudes and misconceptions. (There's also discussion of assessment - how we know whether we've succeeded or not.)

And then we get our after-workshop homework.

It's exhausting. When I'm past "this is Wednesday so we must be re-writing our assignments," I'll try to synthesize it a bit more. In the meantime, presentations are being uploaded as the conference goes on - Tuesday's presentations are already online. (Not podcasts; just Powerpoints. We're still very Web 1.0.)

*It's funny that I'm playing a traditionalist. I never took a traditional Physical Geology course - I got sucked in by a topical course more than 20 years ago.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Links: Sichuan earthquake and age of geoscience profs

I don't have internet at the new house yet, I'm going into the field tomorrow, and I'm leaving Sunday for the Teaching Intro Geology workshop. So I won't be doing much blogging for a while (unless I end up trying to blog from the workshop).

In the meantime, some news that I wish I had time to say more about:

1) GSA Today has an article about the tectonics of the Sichuan earthquake, by Clark Burchfiel, Leigh Royden, and collaborators. It's open access, so you can see it for yourself. The article explains Burchfiel's comments that the earthquake was larger than he would have expected - both estimates of exhumation rates in the mountains and GPS measurements of active deformation suggest that earthquakes of that size occur only every 2000 to 10,000 years. In other words, although the earthquake makes sense in the broad context of plate tectonics, the techniques used to study active tectonics would not have predicted this to be an especially dangerous area.

2) AGI's Geoscience Currents series has just released the geoscience faculty age distribution for 2008. Fewer than 200 faculty members are younger than 36; the numbers of faculty become dominated by associate professors (rather than assistant professors) between age 41 and 45. The flyer states that "The low numbers of faculty under the age of 40 likely reflects the growing tendency for geoscientists to take post-doctoral fellowships prior to entering the faculty ranks." I suspect that cause and effect are switched here, and that many geoscience post-docs would happily trade their jobs for faculty positions if given the opportunity. (As an aside, when I got my Ph.D. at age 26, I told myself that I would give myself ten years to find a job, and if I wasn't employed by age 36, I would do something else with my life. I know I finished grad school at a frighteningly young age, but it's still disconcerting to see that my upper age limit is on the low end of the age range for new hires!)

The graph is also worrisome for young women who wish to be both geoscience professors and mothers - waiting until after tenure (as I tried to do my first time around) is not an option for most women, and that means dealing with a young child in the stressful, highly uncertain world of post-docs and visiting instructors and assistant professors. (Or not having kids at all. But nobody expects men to give up the possibility of kids in order to be scientists.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Unpacking and the urge to classify

I spent the holiday weekend moving into a house in town. This may seem a bit weird, but I kind of like moving. It makes me go through drawer and bookshelf stratigraphy, and rediscover things from the Paleogene (well, ok, 2000) that I had forgotten I owned. In some cases, they were things that we didn't need any more (such as size 3T Halloween costumes, which went to a daycare yard sale). In other cases, they were potentially useful (such as unopened tubes of toothpaste). And then there were the interesting things - the set of pretty metamorphic index minerals (garnet, staurolite, kyanite, andalusite...) that I had packed away when my son was born, for instance.

Now I'm working on UNpacking. It's work, but it's also an opportunity, to make sure that we will be able to find all three bottles of ibuprofen when we need them. I needed some logical schemes to let me find medicine, books, CDs, dishes, food, etc.

About halfway through the bathroom drawers, I realized that I had developed a new classification scheme for my stuff.

Medicine and hygiene stuff is classified by how it is used. Cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache? It's all in the "respiratory ailments" drawer. Clothing malfunction? Needles, thread, safety pins, etc are together. The "skin" drawer has hand cream, foot powder, and diaper rash ointment (leftover, because Boudreaux's Butt Paste is useful for things other than diaper rash). There's a drawer for glasses cleaning and repair. There's a drawer for bleeding (with everything from Spiderman band-aids to massive pieces of gauze for injuries that I hope never to see).

My husband was a bit surprised by the practicality of the scheme - he half expected me to organize the medicine by chemical formula. (If I had taken organic chemistry, I just might have done that.) I suppose I could have organized things by shape (bottles vs boxes vs tubes) or by color or by expiration date. And that made me think about the ways that geological things are classified.

Take rocks, for instance. Our classification into igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary is a good way to remember how rocks form, but it's horrible for students who are trying to learn how to tell apart nondescript dark-colored rocks. (Black limestone? Basalt? Hornfels? They can look very similar, despite being respectively sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic.) And it isn't very useful for people who want to use rocks, either. Metamorphic rocks might make nice sculptures and polished bathroom tile, or they might be good building stone but difficult to polish, or they might be good for roofs or floors. (Or they might be good for figuring out the temperature and pressure of metamorphism, and for sparkling in the light, but not much good for anything else.)

Builders and stonemasons classify rocks differently than I do. Does it take a nice polish? Then it's marble (even if I would call it serpentinite or limestone). Is it hard and difficult to polish, with speckles of various colors? Then it's a granite, not a gabbro or a granodiorite or a gneiss. If it breaks into flat slabs, it's slate, whether I would call it slate, phyllite, mylonite, or thin-bedded sandstone. (And if it crumbles, it's shale. Even if it's really something volcanic.)

When I teach about rocks in my intro classes, I often mention the other names students might have heard for rocks. It's confusing to switch organizational schemes. (And not all students think about rocks in this way.) But maybe I could help some of the students by telling them about the various ways I could have organized my bathroom.