May 13, 2013 by Dr. G
My trip home was an interesting one, starting in Iceland, changing planes in Toronto, then finally arriving home to Philadelphia. I was in three countries in 24 hours!
But the travel time home is always a good time for me to think and reflect upon my recent experiences. I know I will be talking about Iceland and sharing my experiences with my students for years to come. But if I had to summarize some critical learning that took place for me:
(1) Iceland’s geology is a lot more complicated than I thought, certainly much more complex than the textbooks show (granted, I only teach introductory-level geoscience courses, so I do not use books in my classroom that cover beyond the basics). Too often, plate boundaries are shown as one thick red line, like a political boundary drawn between states or countries. Seeing these rifting features across the landscape certainly helps me visualize how wide the features extend. For example, the Google Earth image below shows the site I visited on Day 5 of my short course where we could walk across the two plates. Notice all of the diagonal “cracks” in the surface parallel to one another, demonstrating that the plate movement in this area is pulling apart to the northwest and southeast. I have to figure out the correct balance of how to present the new material I have learned about Icelandic geology but not teach it “over the heads” of my students. Making content accessible and relative to students is always a challenge any instructor faces.
(2) Getting out in the field is so important to learning geology and framing everything from Earth’s surficial processes to features. Pictures can only communicate so much and do a poor job showing a sense of spatial scale (despite the best efforts to include humans, rock hammers, and lens caps in the images we take!). For example, how large is the cinder cone in the image below? Fortunately, there are some roads to help us judge the size, but it is not always possible to include a relative scale. I wish I could take all of my students to Iceland, or even to Arches National Park or to the Grand Canyon, for them to realize how “big” geology is on our planet, to climb over the rocks, to smell the rotten egg smell at Yellowstone National Park, etc. Unfortunately, various logistical issues make it impossible to do weekly lab exercises in each of these locations, but this field seminar made me realize that I need to make an even more focused effort to bring the geology to my students – and perhaps figure out ways to bring my students to the physical geology (and I’m sure some recent alumni would like to come along with me!).
(3) I LOVE being a geologist! Being out in the field for five days with fellow scientists and educators is – well, fun! Climbing over lava flows, finding our way through steaming hot springs, and getting wet behind waterfalls creates an amazing group dynamic filled with respect and a renewed passion for studying planet Earth. It is especially true in geology, where a group of complete strangers can come together and create memories and connections that will last a lifetime. We all hope to see each other on future geology field experiences – in fact, I will be seeing at least two of the participants at future conferences this year! Once I have a copy of our group photo, I will be sure to post it here.
Now comes the grueling part – catching up on all of those emails I couldn’t keep on top of, getting right back to the office to meet with a summer research student, and getting ready for my next meeting (a Saturday session with Philadelphia middle school teachers I’m hosting as part of a NSF grant). Then, before the month ends, I’ll be off to the meeting of the Eastern Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (more field trips in my immediate future – but no columnar basalt this time!).
I also have much news in the science and geoscience education world to catch up on. The Keeling curve has now reached over 400 ppm for atmospheric CO2 measurements, and Google Earth Engine was just released – what a great tool this will be to demonstrate landscape changes over the past several decades. Science doesn’t stop just because I go on a field seminar, that’s for sure.
Never a dull moment in the life of a faculty member! Always learning, always sharing, always looking for a way to make a difference in the lives of students and the discipline.