25 October 2014

GSA and the Biggs Award

Posted by Callan Bentley

The recently-concluded Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, was one of my best meetings ever. I gave two talks and a digital poster, supervised three student digital posters and one student group regular poster, attended and contributed to meetings on a variety of subjects, met new colleagues, reunited with old friends, and even attended some stimulating science talks. Plans were hatched, ideas refined, projects discussed.

Tuesday was a big day for me – at lunch that day, I received the Biggs Award for Geoscience Teaching Excellence from the Geoscience Education Division of GSA. I was nominated for this prestigious award by Heather Macdonald of the College of William and Mary and Bob Blodgett of Austin Community College, who appear alongside me in the photo below. Also in the photo is the (now Past) President of the Geoscience Education Division, Elizabeth Heise, of the University of Texas – Brownsville.


Heather and Bob’s citation appears in the current (hot off the presses) issue of In The Trenches (published by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers). If you read it, you’ll see I was in very good company on the awards dais. Their words were so laudatory as to verge on being embarrassing, and I was deeply honored to be seen as worthy of such high praise from such accomplished geoscience educators, from such leaders in our field.

Here’s what I said upon accepting the award:

It’s wonderful to be here today with you, here on Earth. You and I are fortunate to live on a very interesting planet. It’s big enough to have differentiated. This allowed the development of a metallic core, whose circulation powers a magnetic field that protects our atmosphere from erosion by the solar wind. Differentiation also provides for mantle convection, the power source driving plate tectonics. The eruption of volcanoes and gravitational acquisition of comets both yield water, and this water is critical for life. Every critter and microbe needs liquid water, and for 4.5 billion years, our planet’s surface has had the right blend of solar heating and greenhouse gas insulation to keep the water flowing. What fortune! Every move we make, every breathe we take, we rely on geology.

In my job, it is a delight to be surrounded by clever people who are largely unaware of the dynamic geomachinations that sustain them. You and I teach them to read the world. In every process, Earth generates a little clue or two. The cumulative record of these clues is a fantastic saga: from magma ocean to stromatolitic ‘slimeworld’ to Snowball Earth to Cambrian explosion and eventually the evolution of abstract thinking and human intelligence, we’ve come a long way! And we have the rocks to prove it.

You and I are the ones who get the honor of opening the world’s eyes to geoscience. We reintroduce our students to their planet, what it’s made of, how it works, how it sustains them, and how it can kill them. We provide a vital service, a job that is extraordinarily gratifying fun. For each new student, we slip a pair of geology-colored glasses onto their face, and lean back with satisfaction as they stare about in newfound wonder. Their appreciation is our greatest reward.

I’m honored to be recognized with the Biggs Award. I thank Heather MacDonald and Bob Blodgett for making the effort to nominate me. Heather and the faculty at William & Mary nurtured a familial atmosphere that drew me into geology as a very young man.They inspired me, as did many talented writers and artists. I’m grateful to my colleagues at NOVA, Geo2YC, Pearson, and every institution I’ve been lucky enough to be affiliated with. I’m most grateful to my hardworking students, too many to list here, but some of the best are here at this meeting. My wife Lily is a stalwart supporter of my many projects, but she rightfully reminds me that life is short, and work is but one facet of a full life. Sharing an appreciation of nature with our son Baxter is now the main project I want to spend all my time on.

Every person in this room is interested in geoscience education. Future students are lucky to have you to learn from. I hope you are as honored as I am to be doing this job. It is essential work for the sake of our species’ future, and for the sake of feeling at home here on the most fascinating planet in the neighborhood.

Thank you.

This little speech had quite a galvanizing effect. In addition to applause, several people (mostly people from the Geo2YC community) leapt to their feet and whooped out loud. The ovation was at least partly on its feet. It was really cool to see the chord my words had struck with them. Man, what an infusion of adrenaline and good will I felt. It was so nice to have my work validated in this public forum.

Later that evening, my publisher, Pearson, hosted a reception in honor of the award. Though there was a snafu with directions, those who really wanted to attend figured out where it was and made an appearance. It was a fine evening, and led to some heartfelt and heartwarming narratives from my students (six of whom were there) on the positive influence I’d had on their lives. It was humbling and astonishing to hear how significant my actions had been in determining their course through life. I thank all of them for sharing their feelings with me there – it brought tears to my eyes.

Overall, the meeting was one of the best I’ve ever been to, and I look forward eagerly to the next one – in Baltimore a year from now. GSA’s annual meeting is a highlight of my professional year.