The Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, recently implemented a top to bottom revision of its curriculum. We are a department that encompasses both geology and geography, and we have degree options in Geology, Geography (physical and human), GIS/Geographic Planning, Hydrology (currently on hold pending appointment of a new faculty line), Snow Science, and Paleontology. These latter two degree options are somewhat unique in the US for undergraduate degree programs, and have been hugely successful in recruiting students to the geosciences, particularly out of state students. We currently have a faculty of 11, about 270 majors, 60 graduate students (40 MS and 20 PhD), and provide a large instructional service to MSU, particularly for students from Education, Ecology, Land Resources, and the social sciences.
Our curricular changes were necessitated by both philosophical and practical considerations. Philosophically we were guided by a number of principles: More
I have a long-standing interest in the use of data in education, so I've been reading with interest several articles and a book concerned with the so-called "Fourth Paradigm" of science, in which insights are wrested from vast troves of existing data. The Fourth Paradigm is envisioned as a new method of pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, enabled by new technologies for gathering, manipulating, analyzing and displaying data. The term seems to have originated with Jim Gray, a Technical Fellow and visionary at Microsoft's eScience group, who was lost at sea in 2007. The first three paradigms, in this view, would be empirical observation and experimentation, analytical or theoretical approaches, and computational science or simulation. Earth and Environmental Sciences are well represented in the book, with essays on data-rich ecological science, ocean science, and space science.
I am finding these readings very stimulating and worthwhile. But I question whether this way of making meaning from the complexity of nature is really so new. More
The past two years I've had the privilege of working with some of the best and brightest young geoscientists in the country through our NSF-REU project on Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park. We selected these students based on diversity of geologic interests (petrology, geochemistry, structural geology, sedimentology), types of institution (liberal arts college, comprehensive and research I universities), geographic distribution (coast to coast), and academic preparation (students had completed most of the geoscience "core" courses"). Most importantly, these students were selected on the basis of their motivation to learn geology, curiosity about the Earth system, and confidence in their abilities as expressed in letters of support from their academic advisors. Our research positions were highly competitive, and we could only select 12 participants out of a pool of over 100 applicants in each of our two years. These students were all well-prepared, enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to rock'n'roll. Simply stated, we got to work with the best of the best.
All of these students have now graduated with undergraduate degrees from their home institutions. In tracking their continued professional development many have applied and been accepted to graduate school, some have elected to do year-long service projects, some have gone on to pursue careers in industry or have had internships with the USGS. This is all good news. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent: although many of the students have been accepted to graduate programs at prestigious research institutions, a number of students have had to defer the start of their program, or were ultimately told they could not enroll, because research funding was not available to support their graduate work.
I'm currently attending the International Geological Congress in Brisbane, Australia. At this meeting I've been struck by the huge presence that the mining industry has at this meeting, with major sponsors that include Rio Tinto, BHPBillition, Vale, Xstrata, and the Moultrie Group; and the relatively minor visibility of energy companies in contrast to similar meetings in the US where oil and gas interests seem to reign (Petrobras being the only major energy-based industrial sponsor). The depth and breadth of the scientific presentations on mineral resources is hugely impressive: ore petrogenetic processes, geochemical and geophysical exploration methods, remote sensing, structural control of ore deposits, tectonic distribution of ore deposits, role of ore deposits in evolution of the crust, metallurgical processing, minerals that support emerging technologies. More
The front cover of the current issue of The Economist documents the power of modern science, celebrating the finding of the Higgs boson as "a giant leap for science." But the back cover of the same issue documents the abject failure of natural history education in America. More