The Earth is his classroom

Brett Finds The Balance

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

You would expect Carlton E. Brett, one of this year’s recipients of the AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award winner, to love education.

He doesn’t.

He loves teaching.

The distinction?

Brett, in addition to all his researching, editing and writing duties, also is the undergraduate director of geology at the University of Cincinnati.

That job, he readily admits, is a necessary evil – emphasis on the evil.

“So much of it is one more stupid report,” he says. “It’s all this junk.”

He administrates the duties of education, though, for two reasons:

“To get back to the classroom, and to get back into the field.”

Let’s take the second first.

“The possibility of direct involvement of students at all levels in new field research keeps what might become routine activities vibrant and inspiring,” Brett said.

His motivation; his students’ needs.

“Every student is used to virtual stuff, but it’s the real stuff,” he continued. “They need real experience.”

It’s why he gets out of the “office” as much as possible; it’s why, when he’s in the classroom, he makes it come alive.

“I still very much enjoy using traditional lectures to present the core concepts of a course,” he said, but he then combines them with hands-on and laboratory exercises, including non-conventional, multi-media approaches – everything from the chalkboard and overheads, ELMO to PowerPoint, and traditional slides to videos and websites.

“I frequently have images on three screens at once,” he said, “creating a ‘three ring circus’ effect.”

A Delicate Balance

In his juggling, Brett has found the balance – his niche.

“I do not think that my colleagues who work in purely research positions in museums or surveys have the advantage of this ongoing inspiration,” he said.

But he wants to emphasize that there is no either/or, no line of demarcation between classroom instruction and fieldwork in education.

“Teaching and research are sometimes seen as antithetic activities in a university,” he said, “and, indeed, because time is limited, this could be the case. But I have never believed in this statement.”

He makes sure it’s not.

He talks abut how his research in paleontology, stratigraphy and modern marine environments enables him to bring novel findings and concepts directly into the classroom.

“It informs my teaching and brings a level of credibility, currency and enthusiasm to teaching that could not exist without this direct experience,” he said.

They feed each other.

“Some of my most productive lines of research have come from seemingly simple questions raised by introductory students on field trips.”

The enormity of those questions, whether in the classroom or on the side of the road, never gets old – nor does “the realization that we do not really have answers to some of these most basic questions.”

The Busy Body

Brett has co-published five books, over 230 scientific papers and 70 field trip guides; has been a museum curator; received the Digby McClaren Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Stratigraphic Paleontology; revised the bachelor’s curriculum at Cincinnati, proposing a corresponding bachelor arts program; been principal research adviser to more than 50 students.

He’s self-effacing, antsy; he also is sitting in his driveway in Ohio when we talk.

That’s important.

“Ohio is not so good,” he says, laughing, about what it has to offer in terms of fieldwork.

“Kentucky is grand – I have been all over the world and there’s no place like it. Just stop the car and just get out.”

This, too: “Kentucky cops are fine.”

And Ohio cops?

He laughs. He’s now wishing he hadn’t made that crack about Ohio.

And when he’s out in the field, whether it’s Kentucky or Morocco, looking at his students, he sees the promise in each of them, even as he sees their differences, their uncertainty.

“Geology students are plugged in,” he said. “Chemistry and engineering students not so much. It’s like, ‘You figure it out.’”

Winning the AAPG Murray Distinguished Educator Award in a way affirms that, under his tutelage, many have in fact figured it out.

Brett is humbled and gratified by the award, but still overwhelmed at the challenge and its scope.

“I frequently receive notes from former students, including some who are not employed in Earth sciences, saying that they were inspired by my classes,” he said.

One student wrote “ ... your enthusiasm and passion for what you do demands my utmost respect and inspires me to find a field and occupation that makes me feel the same way.” Another wrote, “I really enjoyed your class; thank you for being what a professor should be.”

What Brett likes about that last letter is he nearly failed the kid.

“He wrote this after he got a D.”

In Pursuit of Honor

To Brett, whose mother taught English and father taught math, teaching is – wait for it – in the blood.

And teaching geology for him is nothing less than teaching about humanity – something that should be honored, protected.

“There’s an aesthetic to it,” he said. “It’s not just science. There’s grandeur. It’s not just rock knocking. That’s insulting.”

When he is on one of these field trips, amidst that inexplicable beauty – for instance, on the 10-day trip to Colorado and Utah that he hosts twice a year for his students – he says he sees, “Some of the grandest ideas ever. We are time lords.”

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