Thursday, August 07, 2008

A teaching puzzle

According to an email in my inbox the semester has officially started. Not that it makes much of a difference. With an intensive short course program in the summer and overlap between summer courses and semester courses the change is barely noticeable. But, the students who are going to stay here for the full semester have arrived, and classes have started.

I have spent most of my time the past week preparing for the course I will be running in the fall semester. It is broad and location dependent, but builds on knowledge from several sub-disciplines and covers a broad range of geological topics. The students have very different backgrounds. Some have only taken an introduction to geology course, while others are near completion of a B.Sc. degree. The overall outline of the course is established in the school curriculum and consists of a fieldtrip, lectures, weekly exercises and an independent project to be completed during the semester. Within this broad outline it is up to me to structure the content of field work, lecture and exercise activities and decide how and when to involve guest lecturers/ co-teachers.

Previously this course has been taught in a relatively traditional lecture format with lectures two-three times a week and a weekly exercise/lab. The individual projects have been literature review projects with presentations at the end of the semester. Two years ago when I was teaching here for six months while being on part-time leave from my postdoc. I developed a course that is now the “sister”-course to this one. The two courses have a very similar structure, but the one I developed two years ago has more field activities and a larger and more research intensive independent project. My goal has been to translate these ideas into the course I’m teaching now, while also keeping some of the elements that have traditionally been part of this course.

I have been struggling with finding a way to connect the field work they do on the excursion to a practical two-week project they carry out in groups and eventually to their own independent research projects. My goal is to make each part become a piece of the next, in a way where they will have an experience of a continuous practical activity running parallel to the more traditional classroom teaching throughout the semester. Most of the stratigraphy here is sedimentary basins, but some students may choose to work on tectonic/structural geology topics for their independent projects. I’m not sure I will manage to connect all the dots this year, but I’m going to outline some of the problems I see, and if anyone has ideas to how to handle any of these successfully your advice would be much appreciated.

The link from excursion to two-week practical project: What kind of data could be collected in limited time with a group of relatively inexperienced people, which will be useful for a larger two-week project concerning partly a different part of the stratigraphy?
We can spend a maximum of one day at each field site as one of the aims for the excursion is to see as much of the stratigraphy as possible, and we have a very good and expensive logistics solution that allows us to move around. They will get to visit a couple of localities with rocks of the same age as they will be working with in the practical project, but with a different position within the basin. I am not sure they will be able to describe enough rock record during a one day stop to be able to do some good comparisons, though.

The link from two week practical project to independent research project: How can a bulk of data collected and processed as group work be separated and distributed into different independent projects. Here I am really lost. I think it would be a good idea if at least some of the independent projects could build on and expand the work they get started during the practical project weeks, but am not able to estimate how this could be done or how many projects there would be basis for doing. I am also not sure how to connect these two parts for those who choose different topics for their independent project.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

In good news

Well, life is busy here. Between starting up new courses, scrambling to put together some research ideas that will work here in my new environment, settling into a new place and doing laundry between field trips, time is scarce.

Yesterday I spent most of the day making a fool of myself in various situations, but today seems to start on a better note.

  • The sun is shining after days and days of fog.
  • I got a very nice review back on a paper. Like a letter from the editor saying "This is really cool science and good work. If you could just add some details and some explanations we would love to publish it in our top of the subfield journal". Yay!
  • We unpacked the last boxes at home, and my home office is almost up and running. Now we just need some new curtains, because all curtains in the apartment are hideous. Really. Like if someone picked them out while blindfolded.
  • I found a very cool conference where I could present some of the ideas my research program here will likely build on and get a chance to meet some important people in my slightly-new-to-me field. The timing of the conference is not splendid and the abstract deadline is soon (too soon given that I have field work and excursions and another conference back to back until then), but I'm going to give it a try.

Maybe it is all coming together anyway.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

When field trips are so much more than what's outlined on the itinerary

I’m back from a great excursion to some of the world-class outcrops that lie on my doorstep here at University above the Arctic Circle. For the past week students from all over Europe have been studying the basin fills from the Carboniferous, Cretaceous and Tertiary. Each morning we would climb some hundred meters above sea level to get to the open air class room where we have discussed sedimentary processes and sequence stratigraphy, practicing field work techniques and geological arguments, all while enjoying some spectacular sunny weather and stunning views.

Something special always happens on these trips. People loosen up and get to know each other and conversations drift from the professional to the personal and back without people even noticing. I like the way the barriers between teachers and students are broken down when in the field. In fact the free and easy atmosphere was part of what attracted me to geology in the first place. I like to get to know my students as more than rows of faces in a class room and to hear their ideas and plans and thoughts. I also like that I get to show a more personal side of the scientist. That the professors are people too, and that we also have families and pets and hobbies and interests and thoughts about things outside the geology classroom. I like the opportunities to discuss career options and education choices and to share the experiences I wished someone had shared with me when I was younger and at a lower level in the ivory tower hierarchy.

I want to show the students that it’s not about being tough, but about doing a good job. That it’s about learning the necessary techniques and bringing the right equipment. I want to show them that the skills needed to do a good job can be learned and that lack of experience does not mean that one will not be able to make it. The process of becoming a field geologist is not only about learning the science, but also about learning to navigate the outdoors. Some students come equipped with mountaineering skills and top notch equipment, but many come with only the most rudimentary knowledge of how to use a compass or how to move in a mountain side. I want to do field courses in a way where it is accepted to be less experienced and where being hungry or tired are legitimate reasons for a break.

The field part of geology is perhaps the area where we are closest to an apprenticeship system. This is where the trade is learned, where connections are made and where ideas about what symbols to use for what structure are etched into brains. It is where skills are mastered and where the way future geologists will go about doing their observations is shaped. It is a place where the tone is set for an open dialogue between teachers and students and where we get a chance to influence or inspire each other. Of course it is also a chance to go to some spectacular places that most people never get to see, enjoy some wet sandwiches after a long day in the rain or just the relief of reaching the destination after a long hike or hitting the shower at the end of the day.

I think that one of the coolest things about moving here is that much of my teaching will be based on field activities.