Monday, 15 July 2013

A Rocking Good Time: Going Back to School

An important part of my job is fund raising – meeting with (potential) donors and helping them determine whether the Faculty of Science is a good philanthropic match for their interests. I have met literally hundreds of donors in my first year as Dean. By and large, they share little in common other than their passion for wanting to make the University of Alberta a better place for students, staff, and/or faculty.

On average, the most affluent graduates from the Faculty of Science are those that pursued a geology-related program. With Alberta’s enormous wealth below ground (oil and gas), there are many Science graduates that struck it rich finding oil, creating oil companies, running oil companies, or servicing the oil economy. When you talk to these people, you discover that all of them have strong memories of their time at the University of Alberta. But in all cases, one student experience in particular stands out: their time spent in the geology field school(s).

Our geology program, part of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has several 10-day intensive courses that bring the student out of the University classroom and into the classroom of the real world. To truly understand geology, one must go to where the rocks are interesting, so that you can get first-hand experience seeing natural formations, analyzing them, mapping them, and inferring their past. Understanding the evolution of a terrain is the key to understanding what might lie below.

It’s one thing to meet a prospective donor and hear the passion that they use to describe their field school experience. It’s another thing to really understand what they are talking about. So, if one is to talk the talk, one has to walk the walk. In May, I took three days off and joined the course EAS234, a 10-day field school in Jasper National Park. I wanted to better understand why this was such an important experience for our geology graduates.

Mount Edith Cavell, as seen from the top of a hill while doing EAS234 mapping. 
EAS234 is very demanding. Students work in the field from 8:30 to 5:00 every day. They return to base and then process the data gathered from their fieldwork as part of their nightly homework. They break for an hour to have dinner, but then return to their analysis. Their homework is due by 9:00, gets marked that night, and returned to the students the next morning. This goes on for ten days. Although it sounds like the course is a holiday (“spend 10 days in Jasper and get credit for it!”), in reality the students work hard from the first day to the last day. 

Co-instructor Sarah Gleeson (right) working late at night grading assignments with the teaching assistants.
Each day they would be bussed from their hotel to an interesting geologic area in the Jasper region. Rain or shine, they would then work continually in the field, except for a one-hour lunch break. The first few days of the Jasper school were very cold (including snow for one of the EAS234 student groups based in Nordegg), but when I arrived the weather turned unpleasantly hot. Too cold is distressing, but I can assure you that too hot is equally uncomfortable – especially when you are out in the mountains with little opportunity for shade and no cold drinks. Regardless of the weather, the students would soldier on, doing whatever was necessary to get the data they needed.

Much of the fieldwork effort was spent building a map that described the geologic history of the region they were mapping. To do this they had to look for clues. They would scour the land looking for rock outcrops and from these observe the type of rock, the layers in the rock, and their shape/formation. All of these are clues that allow a trained geologist to infer what must have happened over eons of time. Mapping the ancient history of the land is not an exact science. From one’s observations one can infer what likely happened. But different geologists using different rock samples might come up with alternate conclusions. Still, it is fascinating to see the clues in the rocks and being to understand what might have happened to result in what you are observing. This can include tectonic plate activity, volcanic activity, ancient ocean deposits, and so on. Every rock formation tells a story going back many millions (even billions) of years.

Co-instructor Octavian Catuneanu showing an interesting geological feature at Athabasca Falls.
There was one moment that defined the entire trip for me. I joined a team of three students that was building a map of  the geologic history of  a region just outside the town of Jasper. The students plowed ahead with their map making, looking at rocks, and following the direction that the rocks pointed in. They made all the right inferences, and were the first to reach the far end of the mapping region. Rather than waiting for the other students to catch up, they followed their instinct and went in a direction that would eventually return them to the starting point. The chosen path required some awkward climbing. Convinced that they were on the right path, they kept moving along, mapping as they went. It was rather eerie being alone in the mountains, knowing that there were 10 other teams out there doing the same thing, but none were in sight. Eventually self-doubt began to creep in, and the students questioned whether they had been mistaken in their choice of path. As they moved through the hilly terrain, they were diligent in building their map and observing the geology. But something didn’t seem right. The lines on the map didn’t match their preconceived expectation – this didn’t confirm to the “textbook” examples they were familiar with. As the students paused and wondered what they had done wrong, one student said “What if…” and suddenly there was an explosion of excited chatter. What if the scenario they were observing wasn’t straight out of a textbook? What if the odd curving of the geologic lines was because, well, things are different in the real world? A couple of minutes later they had their answer; they understood what was happening and were visibly confident in their realization.

Examining a rock outcrop.
This is an example of a wonderful “Ah ha!” moment, where there’s a sudden insight and deep learning happens. The students were excited at their discovery, and I was excited to witness this delightful moment of understanding. After all, this is exactly what a university education should be about.

Of course, I have had the pleasure of witnessing “Ah ha!” moments with my graduate students many times before. Every one of those times is a special memory.

The team of students that I was privileged to spend time with received the highest mark in the class for their work that day. At the end of the course, they were awarded a special prize for creating the best map in the class.

Non-student observers of the course.
The field school is all about creating a deeper learning of Nature and the wonders of our planet. The students work hard for 10 days making for a concentrated and intense learning experience. The members of a team bond with each other, and these bonds often last well beyond their University of Alberta days. This is no ordinary course, which is why it gets etched in the memories of all the participants.

I had a wonderful time participating in EAS234. I learned something about rocks and geology. I met some wonderful people. And I now have a greater appreciation as to why past geology students can regale me stories of their time spent at field school, in some cases going back 50 years.

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