6 November 2014
Getting sketchy (when it comes to geology)
Posted by Jessica Ball
I was inspired to think about the topic of drawing (and markerboards) by the great post by Miles Traer on using stick figure animations to explain complex science concepts. I don’t know if geoscientists are a special breed in that they often default toward drawing out their ideas and thoughts, but I’ve always found it to be an invaluable part of my research process. (I have actually known people to sketch on anything at hand, including napkins, but whiteboards are a lot easier to clean afterward…)
My notes from my undergrad days are littered with graphs and drawings of figures from powerpoints because for me, it makes the concept stick better to draw/write it out myself instead of just making notes on a slide sheet. When I was preparing for tests, I would usually re-write a condensed version of my notes complete with reproductions of the most important figures. And in my field notes (at least the early versions, where I was really conscientious about drawing) there are a lot of sketches of outcrops and figures.
Field trips at my undergraduate institution (William & Mary) were almost always accompanied by a markerboard or two, and learning to draw and write upside-down and backwards was a much-envied skill. It didn’t always result in museum-worthy art, but it made us think spatially.
In grad school, I shared an office with several other students and we used our markerboards for developing ideas. Sometimes we just needed to organize our thoughts, sometimes we were testing hypotheses on each other and needed a way to explain something about (in my office) conduit dynamics or hydrothermal circulation to someone who didn’t specialize in it. I also used my board as a quick way to draft figures that I didn’t want to spend hours drawing on the computer (I now own a tablet to do this with, but I tend to default to the whiteboard for quick sketches).
When I was teaching structural geology, I found that it a lot of students had trouble learning to visualize structures in 3-D, which is understandable – it took me years to be able to think up and manipulate block models in my head. In this case, I took a lesson from Dr. Yvette Kuiper and made a 3-D dry-erase cube so I could try and help them out. It was reasonably successful, and I ended up passing it on to the next structure TA in hopes of making things easier for future students.
Right now, I’ve been using my latest whiteboard to organize my thoughts about the direction I’ll be taking in my postdoc. It’s been a mishmash of things I need to get done around the office, questions that come up when I do reading or talk with my advisors, and drawings I’ve made to help myself think about what we already know. And now that I’ve finally joined the smartphone age (those of you who know me well might remember that I insisted on carting around a plain old flip phone until the screen got so scratched I couldn’t read it anymore), I end up taking a lot of photos to save for my notes, so I don’t have to write things twice!
Do you have a whiteboard/sketchbook/tablet/napkin that you can’t live without? Do you like to preserve your notes forever or do you start clean every week (or day, or hour…)?
I’ve found that a small whiteboard with a 10 cm scale affixed to it is great for field photos. Write the GPS coordinates and sample name on the whiteboard, then when you’re looking back at your photos months or years later, you know where it was, what sample it corresponds to, and what the scale is.