On Challenges and Changes for Educators

Geology, Interrupted

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Big changes in the world have brought big challenges for university educators in the geosciences.

Four professors – all of them AAPG members, and all winners of AAPG awards for teaching – described the realities of geoscience education today. They are:

♦ Joe Cartwright, professor of earth sciences, University of Oxford in Oxford, England.

♦ Bob Goldstein, associate dean of natural sciences and mathematics and professor of geology, University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan.

♦ Andrew Hurst, professor of production geoscience, University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland.

♦ Roger Slatt, professor of petroleum geology and geophysics, University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.

These professors found common ground in discussing the challenges now facing geoscience education, the importance of geological fieldwork, and the ideal qualities for geoscience students.


Cartwright, who won AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Outstanding Educator Award in 2013, sees educators being pulled away from core concepts, and struggling to teach an increasingly broad area of knowledge.

“The biggest challenge comes from the breadth of the subject and the increasing dilution of core geological topics like structure and stratigraphy because of the need to teach more oceanography, atmosphere stuff,” he commented.

He said students’ concentration spans are shorter today, so projects where absorbing detailed literature is important are less well done.

Slatt, an AAPG Honorary member who won the Murray Award in 2005, listed the four major challenges in geoscience education as overcoming:

  • Entitlement mentality.
  • Cell phones in the classroom.
  • Ear pods.
  • Nintendo geology.

“I was first introduced to the term ’Nintendo geologist’ by a petroleum industry professional who saw that the ’new school’ geoscientists were relying more on computer graphics than on geologic thought,” Slatt said.

“It is somewhat unfortunate, but true, that the computing environment sometimes lends itself to building a geologic model that is geologically unrealistic, but that looks nice,” he observed.

Slatt commented that the use of cell phones and ear pods in the classroom indicates a general lack of enthusiasm or interest. He said banning cell phones, media players, tablets and such in class is relatively easy, but he chooses not to.

“My preference is to present my material and if students want to listen, they can, and if they want to use cell phones/iPods, etc. that is fine also. In other words, they have to make their own decisions about what they want out of a class,” he said.

Goldstein, who earlier this year won the AAPG Foundation’s Professorial Award, noted that today’s students are used to digging in and finding the information they need.

“Do they need us to lecture to them in those introductory classes, imparting much of the information they could have learned on their own, or do we need to be their guides to take them to higher levels of learning?” he asked.

“The days of the professor simply lecturing to impart information so the students will remember are passing away. There is still room for some of that, but the opportunity we have is to take advantage of the availability of that information to guide students to higher levels of learning,” he said.

Hurst, who also won the Murray Award in 2011, said in his experience only a few students have a natural aptitude for observational science, which he considers essential for geologists.

“Since computer games, 3-D imagery and instant information have become commonplace and acceptable I believe that most pre-university students, independent of their intelligence, are ill-prepared for geology,” he said. “Their minds are now conditioned to focus on other things.”

Hurst offered a few additional observations, including:

  • “In the countryside students know exactly where they are but have no idea where that is on a map.”
  • “Very few students find thinking in 3-D easy to learn, and most never learn.”
  • “Students rarely understand contours and have weak skills with maps.”
  • “Transposing 2-D information into a 3-D mind-model and vice versa icarts a very unusual skill.”
  • “Most students are computer literate but lack numerical skills. They are computer jockeys but they don’t know anything about the horses that they ride.”

The educators strongly emphasized the importance of students working and gaining insights in the field, not only in the classroom. A general concern is that fieldwork is being curtailed.

“Those of us who experienced field camp all know that the total immersion method of gathering your own data, reading the rocks, thinking through multiple hypotheses, testing them, and overcoming obstacles is transformative for students,” Goldstein said.

“Students go into that experience feeling like students, and they come out feeling like geologists,” he observed.

’In the United Kingdom science has become diluted. HSE regulations now make it difficult for high-school students to carry out lab and/or field work,” Hurst noted.

’Learning from mistakes is considered a safety hazard, which it is, but avoiding learning from mistakes cancels learning. Do we really think that we nearly know all that there is to know about science?” he said.

“In recent years, cuts in academic funding, normally by state governing bodies, have forced universities to curtail some important geologic educational activities, the most important being the field experience, be it the traditional field camp, or just weekend or class time in the field,” Slatt observed.

“’Seeing is believing’ is important in the geosciences,” he added, “and the reduction in such activities as field study has led to enhancement of unrealistic computer models of earth processes and products, and has led to more Nintendo geologists.”

Ideal Qualities

Cartwright listed literacy, numeracy, flexible thinking, critical analytical ability and the ability to think laterally as important qualities in geoscience students. He worried that “numeracy and literacy are under threat” because of changes in education.

Hurst looks for “openness of mind, and the spirit to fall in love with geology.” He said students should have a “curiosity about the natural and physical character of Earth,” coupled with a solid background in math and physics and some working knowledge of chemistry and biology.

’In the UK too many geologists have weak science backgrounds and are unwilling to undertake remedial physics and maths at university,” he said.

But the one word that most often appeared as an ideal quality was “enthusiasm.”

“When I recruit graduate students, I put a great amount of weight on a strong work ethic, inquisitiveness and enthusiasm. Most of the students who apply to our graduate program are very bright, but some have other skills that help them rise above the others and excel in school and in their careers,” Goldstein said.

“Those are students well-versed in the principles of working very hard on a problem,” he noted. “That includes a certain aspect of mental toughness to help them think about all angles of a problem and general inquisitiveness to motivate them.”

“To me, the most important qualities are enthusiasm and an inquisitive nature for what makes the earth the way it is, more so than getting a degree and a good-paying job,” Slatt said.

“With a sincere enthusiasm for geosciences, a student will seek out answers concerning the nature of geology and the Earth, be it for petroleum, ground water, tectonics, igneous petrology or any of the disciplines within the earth sciences. With enthusiasm and inquisitiveness will come a personally rewarding career.”

The educators cited job-chasing and a desire to get good grades instead of an education as negative qualities in today’s geoscience students.

“In the petroleum area, high-paying jobs have led to a greater number of students seeking geoscience degrees in order to get a high-paying job, rather than an overriding enthusiasm for geosciences,” Slatt commented.

However, Goldstein said he sees many programs around the nation focused on governmental and environmental careers, where students don’t seem aware of the opportunities available to them in oil and gas.

“There is an opportunity for us in AAPG to more broadly educate students about the opportunities in our industry,” he said.

Another common theme was the importance of core science in geoscience education at a time when some students consider only two kinds of research: Google it or look it up in Wikipedia.

’It is a privilege to be an educator, but societal changes make basic educational needs challenging to deliver,” Hurst said. “Wiki-life is a problem, so as educators I think that we need to look after the basic foundations of our subjects.”

Comments (1)

Geology, Interrupted
Wow! what a damning assessment of today's geology students and education. It will be interesting to hear the students perspective. Are the inatte... Read more
8/8/2014 12:27 PM
Wayne K. Camp

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Emphasis: Geoscience Education