Congratulations to "On the Cutting Edge"

Kim Kastens
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published Feb 26, 2010
SPORE award notice from Science mag onlineAnnouncement featured on front page during week of Feb 25, 2010.
Please join me in congratulating Earth & Mind co-editors Cathy Manduca and Dave Mogk, Earth & Mind computer engineer Sean Fox, plus Barb Tewksbury, Heather Macdonald, Ellen Iverson, Karin Kirk, John McDaris, Carol Ormand, and Monica Bruckner, upon their receipt of the "Science Prize for Online Resources in Education." This prize is given by Science magazine, "to encourage innovation and excellence in education, as well as to encourage the use of high quality on-line resources by students, teachers and the public." The group won for their work in developing the "On the Cutting Edge" website, as documented in an essay entitled "On the Cutting Edge: Teaching Help for Geoscience Faculty."

When I first heard Cathy and Dave talk about how they wanted to create a community of people who would share ideas and support each other in teaching about the Earth, I didn't get it. I could think of a lot of things that might make my teaching more effective and my professional life easier. But "a community" wasn't one of them.

Only in retrospect, can I see where this was going. The first paragraph of the prize essay makes the point well:

In contrast to science, which makes progress at the level of the community and where individual work builds on all that has come before, teaching science has often been an individual enterprise. Typically, faculty create courses in isolation, without the benefit of knowledge of others' classroom experiences or research on how students learn. Building a culture of sharing and communal improvement in support of undergraduate geoscience teaching is the goal....

There were several important insights here: First of all, that a community was needed. Secondly, that a community was something that could be built, purposefully. Thirdly, how to plan and execute a set of actions that would integrate to create an effective community. In my experience, such thinking is deeply foreign to most natural scientists.

Photograph of woman spinningHand-spinning is an amusing hobby if done in small quantities; but I don't want to make all my family's clothes this way and I don't want to make all my student activities this way. <photo info>
In retrospect, I can see that college teaching had been stuck back in a pioneer frontier mentality, in which an individual who wanted to provide her family of students with metaphorical warm clothing had to raise the sheep, shear the sheep, wash the wool, card the wool, spin the yarn, weave the cloth, and sew the garment. Same for food: till the ground, sow the seed, weed the plants, harvest the crop, thresh the grain, bake the bread...

I clearly remember the first time that a professor asked me and my classmates to analyze an authentic geoscience data set as a normal class assignment. That would be Robert Gordon at Yale in approximately 1974. And I remember equally clearly the first time I encountered an authentic data set to analyze on a mid-term exam; that would be Joris Gieskes, at Scripps, in approximately 1976. These educational experiences remain vivid in my memory more than 30 years later, I think in part because they were so unusual and in part because they were so interesting and real.

From my present perspective, I now realize that creating these memorable educational experiences must have required a substantial input of knowledge, time, effort and imagination on the part of those professors, to identify appropriate data and craft appropriate exercises, beginning all the way back with the raw wool. They couldn't and didn't lay out an entire course this way, only isolated exercises, and only a handful of students benefitted.

Cathy and Dave and colleagues had the brilliant insight that we don't each need to do everything ourselves. We can each do what we are good at, share our best products and ideas with our colleagues, and all come out ahead, faculty and students both. Unlike garments or loaves of bread, pedagogical insights and learning activities are not ragged or gone after the first person is done using them. They can get better rather than worse with additional use and polishing. This all sounds easy and obvious, in retrospect, but it was not so at the time. Farseeing vision and masterful social engineering underlie the success of "On the Cutting Edge."

Congratulations to "On the Cutting Edge" --Discussion  

Congratulations to everyone involved in the Cutting Edge and SERC! I was so excited to hear this yesterday - when I heard of the SPORE prize, I hoped that the Cutting Edge would win it. I'm glad it did!


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Science magazine sent me a notice that the SPORE 2010 contest is now accepting nominations. Information can be found here:


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Congratulations. A great honor. Much deserved!


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Thanks Danny :).


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