‘The best … are those who see the most rocks’

Educator Seeks to Nurture Creativity

Andrew Hurst
Andrew Hurst

For Andrew Hurst, the love of teaching begins in the most unlikeliest of places for a geology professor: the first year large-hall lecture classes.

There, he says, the challenge is not just to introduce or even challenge his students to the wonders of geology, but to do something more: Make it matter.

“Teaching basic geology to 150 or so students in a class that included psychologists, biologists, chemists and all manner of youngsters who had no intention of ever looking seriously at rocks was both humbling and uplifting,” Hurst said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to infect their lives with geology.”

But by all accounts, he’s not only done just that, he’s done it well. Hurst is a 2011 Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award recipient (along with Imperial College’s Howard D. Johnson), presented “in recognition of distinguished and outstanding contributions to geological education.”

Hurst, though, is somewhat surprised he’s getting the AAPG award, as he feels his specialties are perhaps not always on the lips of too many in the geological community.

He puts it this way:

“I sit on the lunatic fringe of geology, having worked with clay mineralogy, probe permeametry and sand injectites, amongst other interests.”

‘A Personal Dare’

Still, while Hurst may march to the beat of a different geologic drummer, he can still play with the organized band.

When he returns from the fringe, Hurst, the director of the MSc Petroleum Geoscience Program at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, does what pillars in the profession do: He writes (so far he’s co-authored more than 130 papers and co-edited three major special publications).

Additionally, through his current work as AAPG chief editor and coordinator of the 100th anniversary volume, “Outcrops That Have Changed the Way We Practice Petroleum Geology,” he has been instrumental in changing the way geologists practice and record their profession.

He also is the founding editor of the Petroleum Geosciences, the executive editor of Sedimentary Geology, an adviser to exploHUB and, most recently, the founder and chairman of Fabric of the Land , a yearly exhibit that aims to bridge the gap between science and art .

Hurst sees all his work as a challenge, yes, but teaching as something of a personal dare.

“If one cannot inspire students about a science as wonderful as geology,” he said, “what a failure that would be.”

For him, receiving this award, as it was when he received the AAPG Distinguished Service Award in 2007, is a way to say thank you to his contemporaries.

“To receive the Grover E. Murray Award is a huge and surprising honor for one who has a substantial debt to many ever-supportive and patient academic colleagues,” he said. “To receive any award is flattering, and to receive this award for doing a job that I love is great.

“I believe that the award gives credit to my colleagues and the University of Aberdeen.”

A Historical Foundation

In fact, Aberdeen has the advantage of a large local population of professional geoscientists in the oil industry – and one of the reasons, along with a committed faculty, like Hurst, that the University of Aberdeen is considered by many to be one of the premier geology schools in the world.

According to AAPG President Paul Weimer, himself a professor at the University of Colorado, “When I think of the top applied geology departments in the world, the University of Aberdeen is in the top five.”

Hurst is touched by his friend’s recognition, but not surprised.

“I sometimes joke that Aberdeen has been teaching petroleum geology since 1495,” he says, citing the long association between Aberdeen, specifically, and Scotland, generally, with the discipline.

“I believe that there is no better place in the world to be an academic petroleum geologist.”

He points to the school’s more than 60 graduate and 100 post-graduate students in any given year.

“Although this gives us a rather applied slant, my colleagues and I firmly believe that the best (applied) geologists are those who see the most rocks,” he said, “and that to be a good applied geologist one needs a broad fundamental geological training.”

But even a school such as Aberdeen is not immune to the realities of a literal and figurative changing geologic landscape.

“Investment in science education,” he said, “is under pressure both because less rather than more government funding is likely and student numbers are rising, thus necessitating changes in practice and innovation.”

As such, he says, his department has forged and is seeking strategic alliances with academic partners from emerging, developing nations and industry partners.

Hurst knows there must be a balance between the new reality in the classroom and the timeless integrity of the material.

“Today’s students tend to be tangled up in the ‘virtual world’ and pass through secondary education being taught how to do well in exams rather than receiving education,” he said. “I believe that geologists who cannot make fundamental observations of rocks will struggle to make observations on seismic, well log and any other data.”

Industry professionals and professors, too, must change the way they approach these students.

“With respect to the future of our profession, I am concerned that the oil industry and academia put insufficient emphasis on the role of young professionals in wealth creation,” Hurst said. “The opportunity exists to hire new graduates and to focus their skills and energy on developing concepts, identifying and challenging dogma, shifting paradigms and thereby making opportunities for wealth creation.

“It will be sad if well-meant company graduate-training programs squeeze the creative juices out of new graduates and transform them into ‘loyal company employees’ before their innate creative talents have been allowed to add value,” he added.

Balance

And of that creativity, he talks of balance and philosophy, quoting the legendary geologist Wallace Pratt, who said, ‘Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men.”

“In academia,” Hurst said, “a better appreciation of safe and environmentally-friendly exploitation of natural resources is a priority,” he said. “It is not the natural resource that is inherently ‘dirty,’ but rather what mankind does with them.”

It is, as it always has been, about balance between and within the university and industry communities.

“Educating and researching ways in which we can balance societal needs while being sensitive stewards of the environments is vital to the health and welfare of our planet,” he said.

Specifically, in education, it means teachers who give students less opportunity to “brain-dump” in essays, as he calls it, for it is difficult to use as a method for differentiating between talent and memory.

Rather, he thinks more focus should be placed on 3-D thinking and extrapolation, so that “before young geologists turn on their modeling programs, they already have conceptual mind-models in place.”

Even with the obstacles, uncertainties and restraints, Hurst still thinks of the profession’s “silver lining.”

“Geology has such a breadth of opportunities,” he said, “that I cannot imagine not having an exciting and fun time in whichever direction my career has gone or will go.”

Even if it takes him deeper and deeper into the fringe.

Next month: A look at fellow AAPG Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award recipient for 2011, Howard D. Johnson.

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