19 June 2013

Core Skills in the Geosciences: A Follow-up

Posted by Jessica Ball

Note: This post will be published in the August issue of Earth Magazine.

Last April, I had a discussion with some of my fellow graduate students in the geology department here at UB about teaching. One topic raised by those of us working with senior undergraduates was the skills our students would need to have by the time they left the department. We realized that many students take winding paths on the way to finishing a major for various reasons, including that they transferred from another school, they switched majors, or they are double-majoring and have time conflicts. A winding path isn’t necessarily detrimental as long as the students come out of the process with a solid geoscience skillset. But what should that skillset include?

Like any good geoblogger, I crowdsourced the answer to this question, and asked all of you to offer your input on what core skills geosciences students should they have by the time they graduate to be a well-rounded geoscientist.

The answers, predictably, varied with the expertise and experience of the responder. No two undergraduate programs operate the same way, and some skills may be emphasized more than others because of the instructors who are available, the research focuses of the department, and even the physical location of the school. The answers were also somewhat goal-dependent; in other words, what does a graduating geology major hope to do with his or her degree? A skillset that focuses heavily on field mapping may be less suited to experimental work than a skillset with more lab experience, for example.

Acquiring a skillset in my undergraduate days. (I'm practicing my camera skills after identifying minerals in outcrop!)

However, there were certain commonalities that appeared in all of the responses, which I summarize below.

Back to basics. Geoscience faces the misconception that it is a less-rigorous science option for students who are put off by physics or chemistry or math-heavy majors. But geoscience is, in fact, an amalgamation of many scientific disciplines, and any geoscience graduate should have at least some experience with all of them. At a minimum, this means taking classes in chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics (through calculus and linear algebra), ideally with a side of statistics and data analysis. These things form some of the basic intellectual tools in any geoscientist’s kit. The ability to communicate effectively through writing (near and dear to my own heart) is also very important. Whether learned in a freshman composition course, in major courses in geology or in a capstone research project, writing skills are tremendously important – which leads me to the next category …

Think you don't need to know basic math? It's a lot easier than trying to find half-pennies these days.

Telling a story. It’s not surprising to hear from the geoblogosphere, where written communication reigns, that students need to know how to communicate their work clearly and concisely, both verbally and in writing. They should also know how to develop and structure a research project in writing and how to correctly use and cite sources. I tend to emphasize scientific communication more than anything when I am asked what an aspiring geologist should focus on; if you can’t communicate your own science well, or comprehend how others communicate theirs, the scientific process becomes far less efficient.

I'm actually talking about archaeology here, but presentation skills are important for everyone!

And this doesn’t just go for geoscience students – all science students need communication skills. How else are we going to obtain new grants, or know how to explain our work when a journalist comes calling? I am always stunned when someone who has graduated with a science major of any kind tells me they never had much practice writing. Getting through four or more years of college without writing won’t serve you well in any career.

The nitty gritty. More specific topical knowledge was, not surprisingly, where I received the widest range of answers. Many of the responses have to do with field skills, but others also highlight the need for a good bit of background knowledge that every geoscientist should be able to fall back on, as well as basic habits of good scientific practice in general. So, by general consensus, a graduating geology student should:

  • Have a basic knowledge of the interconnectedness of different “spheres” (such as the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere and cryosphere).
  • Be able to identify basic rock-forming minerals (including economic minerals) and rocks in the field, in hand sample and in thin section, and have a grasp of what each suggests about past conditions, including environmental conditions and conditions of formation and precursor rock types.
  • Understand how and why we sample rocks and fossils.
  • Recognize basic fossil types and how to use them for age dating and paleoenvironment reconstruction.
  • Recognize different types of natural hazards and their zonation in hazard assessments.
  • Demonstrate basic field and laboratory safety techniques. (In other words, know how not to do dumb things and avoid emergency room visits.)
  • Understand how to read and construct topographic maps, geologic maps, cross sections and stratigraphic sections, and how we collect data for them (including honing applied skills like how to use a surveying compass).
  • Be able to connect surface stratigraphy, structures and geomorphological features to subsurface geology.
  • Understand how plate tectonic processes operate and recognize different tectonic environments.
  • Know the geologic history of their local region.
  • Have a sense of geologic time, including the rate and duration of key processes and the incompleteness of records, and
  • know the geologic time scale and the basics of age dating — particularly which technique is most appropriate for a specific problem at hand.

REALLY gritty, in some cases. (Shamelessly yanked from one of my geo friends at W&M - is this your photo of the awesome Bobby J?)

There’s no two ways about it: This is a big body of knowledge, and even this list has been edited for brevity’s sake. The list is subject to change once someone establishes a specialization – after all, not using specific skills regularly makes us likely to forget little bits and pieces. As a volcanologist, for example, I don’t deal with fossils very often, and I’m probably not going to remember off the top of my head how to date a sedimentary layer by its brachiopods. (In my defense, there are a lot of brachiopods out there.) But core topics like the scope of geologic time, the utility of a map, and the distinction between basic rock types get drummed into students from their first introductory labs. The geoblogosphere agrees that students definitely need to master those skills before getting a degree.

Tech savvy. In earlier days, it wasn’t unusual for geoscientists to work with little more than a map, a notebook and a compass, perhaps along with some basic lab equipment. But today there is a wealth of technology available to geoscientists, and graduating geoscience majors need to have at least a basic knowledge of the technology available.

Competency with spreadsheets, calculators and other computing tools is vital, including good data management habits such as making multiple backups. There’s nothing worse than working for a year on a research project only to lose all the data when you spill coffee on your laptop. The ability to work with data using GIS or other such programs is also important, as there will often be times that you need data you can’t collect directly. Likewise, making your data understandable and accessible to other scientists using public databases is extremely important for the transparency and process of science.

Being able to visualize data and create visualizations – whether in an image-processing or vector graphics program, or maps made with GIS software – is likewise crucial because visualizations are just as important in the geosciences as writing.  Managing scientific literature is important for keeping up-to-date on current research. You should know how to find scientific literature using specialized search engines, and how to keep track of it with reference management software.

Knowing a little about how to use tech in the field is also useful. Not everyone is going to be working with complex geophysical equipment, but you should at least be able to deal with a basic GPS unit, especially if you spend any time mapping. Camera skills have also become more important; photography is a good way to enhance your field notes, as long as you go about it methodically, remembering things like scales and lighting and framing. Likewise, smartphones and tablet computers are inching their way into the field and lab and may be used more and more as time goes on.

As I said, not everyone will end up using a LIDAR, but it pays to at least learn to deal with your digital camera!

Now that we have a list of core skills, the next question to ask is what to do with it.

The criteria shouldn’t be used to bar students from graduating if they can’t check off every skill on the list — the last thing we want is to scare people away from geoscience! But this list can serve as a general outline of geoscience skills that both geoscience faculty, when they develop a curriculum, and students, as they make their way through their education, should keep in mind. It is also important for students to remember why they’re taking a course in the first place. They are there, in theory at least, to develop and refine these core skills, not just to keep up a GPA or survive a semester. Getting a degree isn’t just about surviving college, it’s about building a toolkit that will last through an entire career, whether or not that career is in the geosciences.

One last note: If you’re still interested in adding your two cents to the list (and remember that there’s a lot on the list that I couldn’t fit into this post!), it’s still freely available to everyone here.