In the Eye of the Beholder

David Mogk
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published Jan 30, 2012

I recently had the pleasure of attending a multi-media performance, "A Universe of Dreams", which showed spectacular astronomical images acquired by the Hubble space telescope, set to the lilting Celtic music of the Ensemble Galilei, and with thought-provoking narrative and poetry read by Neil Conan (of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" fame). This program delivered an awe-inspiring integration of Science and Art. The images were fantastic beyond description. But, as I drifted through the images of the far universe during the presentation, I realized that I really had no idea what I was looking at. Beyond the aesthetic appeal, I had to admit that I was woefully ignorant (or at least uninformed) about the scientific significance of the images. As I searched for meaning in the gallery of images, I found myself reflecting on how the images were acquired, and for what purpose. Somebody made the decision to take a given image. What was it that they saw that compelled them to take just THAT image? What insights could they gain about the nature of the universe from this perspective? What wavelengths were recorded—the visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, or other? Are these true color images, or were these images enhanced by processing software? And most important (to me) what did the structures captured in these images reveal about cosmic history or processes? The multi-media presentation was lovely, but I wanted to know more.

I had to reflect on my own instruction in geosciences courses from introductory physical geology to advanced metamorphic petrology. In my courses I rely heavily on images of natural occurrences. I generally try to rely on my own photo archives, so naturally the images I use reflect my own experiences and interests. And because I was "there," I benefit from knowing the full context of when, how and why the images were collected. But my students are immediately at a disadvantage because they haven't shared the experience nor can they readily discern the underlying significance of the images I've selected. I do access other public archives of Earth images: Earth Science Picture of the Day, AGI's Earth Science World Image Bank, the Geoscience Digital Image Library GEODIL, and Google Image searches of credentialed sources such as the USGS and NASA. In my introductory courses, for the first lecture I typically put together a slide show of the most amazing places and phenomena that I know about. I naively thought that early exposure to the diverse features of this amazing planet would somehow serve as a motivation to learn. However, I now fear that my students are so far removed from knowledge of (or even curiosity about) the larger world around them, that I might as well be describing the far reaches of the universe, as was the case for me and my recent encounter with the Hubble images. As an alternative, LeAnne Teruya, San Jose State University, gave a very thought-provoking presentation at the 2011 GSA meeting entitled Geology is Everywhere: Using the Familiar to teach the Unfamiliar, in which she argues that students can be better engaged through encounters with places and events that are local and familiar. Even though we (geoscientists) may revel in the awesome diversity, energy and beauty of the natural world, we may be missing the point entirely as we try to engage our students with images of unfamiliar landscapes.

So I wonder, when I show a picture of the Grand Canyon or Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, what are my students really seeing? Hopefully, if nothing else, they'll appreciate the astounding beauty of Nature. But, the underlying Science to be discovered in these images of Earth is no less profound and foreign to my students than the mysteries of the universe encountered through the Hubble space telescope: encountering "deep time", seeing the result of the titanic forces responsible for the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, the inexorable erosion that created the landscape we see today, the possibility of life on Earth in the most extreme environments. It is not sufficient to simply present these types of images and assume that our students will "get it". Richard Mayer, Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UC Santa Barbara, has authored numerous books on multi-media learning, and argues that guided discovery is really necessary to promote learning when students are confronted with complex visualizations. So it is really our responsibility as instructors to help make explicit connections between our students and Nature, to provide context for understanding, to use appropriate annotations in our imagery to direct students' attention to the salient features, and perhaps share in the joy of discovery, sense of awe and wonder, and personal reflections on why these images are particularly meaningful. An aesthetic appreciation of the wonders of the universe around us is a good start; but once we get the attention of our students, we can do so much more to help students attain deeper understanding by guiding them through complex representations of Nature.

Check out these additional resources on the importance of the Affective Domain in our instructional practice, and effective Teaching Geoscience With Visualizations from the On the Cutting Edge program for geoscience faculty professional development.

In the Eye of the Beholder --Discussion  

Hi Dave,

My Geology 10 professor at Yale, Brian Skinner, had a vast personal slide collection of geologically significant photographs, at a time long before web-sharing of photos and illustrations. He used to show what I considered to be "scenery photographs" at the end of each lecture, and I remember wondering why he was doing this. I really didn't get it that the "scenery photos" were supposed to help me understand the concepts or processes he had been lecturing about. As you say, these connections are not obvious to novice students.


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HI Dave-
I had the opposite experience. MY first geology course was geology of the National Parks (taught very well by Bud Wobus at Williams). The photographs and scenery were inspirational to me -- but then I'm also from the west and had personal experience or aspirations to see many of these places.


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Thanks for the comments, Cathy and Kim. I guess my point is that in showing these wondrous images we may not be having the intended impact on MOST of our students, when these images are so far outside their interests and experiences. Of course, for students who are pre-disposed towards seeking new adventures, going to new places, these images may indeed be motivational as it was for Cathy. But what percentage of our students will be so motivated? Maybe not very many at the start, but perhaps we can win over a few converts. Rock on!


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