24 August 2008

Accretionary Wedge #12: Geology as a connector science

Posted by Jessica Ball

Hooray! I finally have both a working computer and internet connection. Definite cause for celebration, since I can now get back to blogging – at least as much as grad school allows, that is.

Even more cause for celebration: This is post #100! I think it’s fitting that it should be an Accretionary Wedge entry, since at least part of the reason I started blogging was to connect with other people in the “geoblogosphere” – and what better way to do that than an online panel discussion? (Hey, there’s that connection theme again.)

I’ve decided to write about something that’s going to happen in a few days: I’m going to stand in front of an introductory geology lab and try to convince myself that I’m qualified to be teaching people who are only a few years younger than me. I expect that many of them will be freshmen, or non-science majors, who are in the class because they have to fulfill a science requirement. My undergrad classmates called this the “Rocks for Jocks” phenomenon, and we always laughed gleefully afterward, because we knew that anyone who picked geology because it was a “soft” science would be very surprised when they got to class. This phenomenon is also, in my opinion, at the root of the difficulties that science educators have keeping geology in science curricula at the K12 level. We as geologists all know that geology is one of the most inclusive sciences there is – but how do we get this across?

One of my main concerns is to make my labs not only fun for my students, but relevant to their lives. They’re probably used to thinking of sciences as compartmentalized – this is chemistry, this is physics, this is astronomy, etc. I want to prove to them that not only is this untrue, but that they’ve probably used or relied on geology – and all the other sciences it incorporates – on a daily basis.

I’m planning on doing a short activity based on one that my mineralogy professor did early on in his course. I’ll be handing out Oreos (knowing full well that food is an excellent tool for bribery), then asking the students to think about what goes into them (and the packaging). Once we’ve got a list, I’m going to ask them to tell me where each ingredient comes from, and how it is obtained. This is a great place to bring geology – and other sciences – into the discussion. Cocoa, for example, is commonly grown in tropical climates, and in rich volcanic soils (like in Central America). That chocolate flavor came (ultimately) from a volcano! The white filling is colored with TiO2, otherwise known as rutile, which can also be found in quartz crystals. There are minerals in that cookie! The plastic wrapper and tray are made from chemicals derived from petroleum products, which started as rotting leaves in a coal swamp teeny dead ocean critters hundreds of millions of years ago! And so on.

The value in the activity – aside from the brief boost in attention span resulting from sugar intake – is that they see the connections that science, and geology in particular, have to their everyday lives. Geology isn’t just something that grubby, bespectacled rockhounds do off in the mountains somewhere; it’s something that ultimately helps produce the food we eat, the packaging that keeps it fresh, the fuel for transporting it, the nuclear energy that runs the lights in the grocery store, and more.

Hopefully, in trying to communicate how geology is intimately connected to our lives, I’ll also be able to get across how important it is to me, and how exciting I find it because of all those wonderful connections. And, according to the people in my three-day “how to not fail as a teacher” training session, getting your students excited about learning is the most important part of the job.

And there are some thoughts on connections, with a bit of wandering thrown in. (And after what I’ve gone through to get moved into a new apartment in a new state and trying not to panic about teaching and taking classes, I think I’m allowed a few tangents!)