'Helping Students to Think’ Is His Passion

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

After the interview, the emails back and forth, the attachments of background material about his teaching and research, Robert H. Goldstein, this year’s AAPG Foundation Professorial Award recipient, had a special request.

“Is there some way,” he wrote in an email during a weekend correspondence, where we both chided each other about actually working on the weekend, “I can have a quote that expresses appreciation to the students who nominated me and to my colleague, Evan Franseen, who wrote a letter in support of this?”

Which should tell you all you need to know about why such a man would receive such an award.

This is a gracious, humble man, and someone who loves what he does.

Goldstein, an associate dean and Haas Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geology at the University of Kansas – he’s been there for 29 years, helping to build the school’s geosciences programs to a place of national prominence – said there’s something special about the make-up of this particular award.

“This honor is even more meaningful because it comes from AAPG,” Goldstein said, “an organization that truly represents my interests and those of the students I teach.”

A carbonate sedimentologist by training, Goldstein, who has supervised or co-supervised more than 40 graduate students, said that teaching – whether it’s to engineers, geologists or geophysicists – goes far beyond the particular discipline.

“For me,” he said, “teaching in the geosciences is incredibly rewarding work.”

‘Ah Ha’

Goldstein is the third recipient of the Foundation’s Professorial Award, given to a college or university professor who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the field of geoscience education.

The first two recipients were James Evans, of the Utah State University College of Science, and Grant Wach, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Award recipients receive a $1,000 prize from the AAPG Foundation plus a commemorative plaque acknowledging the achievement.

One gets the feeling the prize itself is a secondary bonus for Goldstein.

“I truly love teaching at all levels, from Introduction to Geology to AAPG field seminars,” he said. “For me, teaching in the geosciences is all about helping students to think and see.”

Goldstein said that his goal – and you get the sense he thinks it should be the goal for everyone who teaches – is to provide a way for a student to have, what he calls, an “Ah ha” moment.

A moment when they realize: This is how science works.

One of the ways in which he does that, personally, is by engaging his students at all times – classroom, lab, field trips – in specific geologic problems.

“That inevitably leads to interactions where the students want to dig deeper, or need some background skills to move further in solving the problem,” he said.

In fact, it was his colleague Franseen who said that Goldstein can lecture at a moment’s notice, a notion Goldstein thinks is a prerequisite for teachers, and for good reason.

“Students ask questions all the time,” he said.

“I very much enjoy the challenge of offering concise and organized instruction to them on demand and at the drop of a hat, to help students develop a deeper background understanding, so they can rapidly take the next steps in solving a problem.

“Typically, those explanations or mini-lectures stick out in students’ memories,” he continued. “They seem to sink in, as students have learned the new skill or concept in the context of solving an engaging problem they are already working on.”

STEM the Tide

Goldstein, who has won teaching awards at the University of Kansas at the introductory, undergraduate and graduate levels, is perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss the state of geoscience education in not just Lawrence, Kansas, but America.

“As most are well aware, there is currently a huge challenge in STEM higher education (the study of science, technology, technology and mathematics) and that has a big impact on our workforce,” which, he adds, is a problem, for in high school most students do not get a strong background in the geosciences.

The result: “Few are initially interested in our discipline when they first get to college,” he said.

Since 2011 Goldstein has been in charge of developing and administering new programs at KU to help improve teaching and learning for students in these STEM disciplines.

In addition, he said, too many students who are initially interested in STEM fields in high school migrate away from STEM once they get to college.

“At colleges and universities, we must both attract students to our field and keep those interested in the geosciences highly engaged,” he said, which means that the curriculum has to get students in the field as much as possible, working on problem solving and getting away from what he calls “sage-on-a-stage” large lecture styles of classes, so common in many colleges and universities.

To this end, Goldstein is part of the Bay View Alliance, a network of U.S. and Canadian research universities taking a leadership role – much like he’s doing at KU – for increasing the adoption of improved teaching methods at colleges and universities in North America.

At the moment, one of his roles is leading the design and fundraising for an $86 million Earth, Energy and Environment Center at KU that will integrate the school’s energy, environment and industry outreach programs, including fossil fuel, geology, geophysics, organic geochemistry, nanoscience, groundwater hydrogeology and other related programs.

For this “sage-on-a stage,” Goldstein’s work, his life and his hobbies are all co-mingled.

“My personal life tends to involve a lot of travel,” he said. “This revolves around my roles as a faculty member in geology, researcher in carbonates, associate dean for natural sciences and mathematics, as well as my outreach and training role for industry.

“Luckily,” he added, “my wife, Cindy, enjoys this travel as much as I do, and she is my partner for most of these trips.”

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