Geoscience by example

Ntungwa Maasha, Natural Science, College of Coastal Georgia

In June 2011 I was invited to the geology department of the Faulkner School of Engineering in the College of Science, University of Liberia to participate in revising its geology curriculum and to make the maiden presentation at the inauguration of its seminar program. It was the first time after two decades that I was going back to Liberia, where I lived and worked for ten years and had left hurriedly in the thick of a national crisis and did not even have a chance to wish farewell to anyone. For the intervening years the country experienced political instability, civil war, and the social chaos that thrives in such circumstances. At the time I received the invitation war and all political unrest had ceased. The country was on the mend, and civil institutions were back in operation.

Although my story on teaching geosciences began some thirty years ago when I took a teaching position in the Geology Department at the University of Liberia, I shall begin with some observations about my visit of the Geology Department in June 2011. From U.S.A my wife, son, and I arrived at dawn at Liberia's Roberts field International airport where Albert Chie, the chair of the Geology Department welcomed us, loaded our luggage into vehicles and brought us to Kendeja, a suburb of Monrovia, where he checked us into the plush resort there. He then assigned us a vehicle and driver for our transport during of the visit.

After breakfast the next morning the driver took us to the University campus where, after introductions, the Associate Dean of Engineering lead the geology faculty and other guest scientists in revising the department's mission and the curriculum. It is noteworthy that when I joined the University of Liberia as assistant professor of geology in 1978 I also took on administrative duties of the fledgling department that had up to then been under the guidance of Cletus Wotorson, Liberia's Minister of Lands, Mines, and Energy who had nursed the program into existence. The rest of the teaching faculty consisted of geologists from government agencies who taught there part time. Thanks to the wholehearted support of the University administration, within three years, the geology program had evolved into a full-fledged, degree granting department of five. As noted by several of those reviewing the curriculum the five members of the faculty collaborated to instill the best geological practices into the students. Weather in the classroom or in the field we were in agreement that giving example was the best way we would go. To this end we emphasized team work and open consultation among us for our students to emulate

The revision of the curriculum was a particularly insightful exercise for me. First, with the exception of only one, the first twenty graduates from the department had gone on to graduate school. It was most gratifying to know that invariably wherever they went for graduate school they were always deemed "well-prepared" or "over-prepared". Very telling indeed was the fact also during the time of the nation's crisis the department's alumni manned the Geology Department and it was the sole academic unit of the University of Liberia that functioned normally and continuously while other programs languished and were in shambles. Additionally, the Ministry of Land, Mines, and Energy, with most of its offices held by geologist trained in the department played a major role is stabilizing the country by superb management of its mineral and energy resources

Clearly, in a situation like Liberia where there was a large number of high school leavers competing for a few seats in the geology program at the university the chosen were ones who had scored highest on the university entrance examination and would probably succeed despite being taught by bumbling teachers. Besides, after half a dozen or more courses in four or five years interacting with a student how can one ever correctly attribute the cause of influence? Accordingly, that my former students had been very successful, or as my wife put it to them "prosperous" could very well be engendered by inspiration by teachers and colleagues or largely due to their own ingenuity and the wise use of the opportunities afforded them. Nonetheless I was impressed and amazed the most by how the spirit of cooperation pervaded their interactions and probably helped them to overcome unfavorable circumstances and to accomplish so much. For example, each of them had contributed to the mentoring of the students in the department of geology. Indeed the department flourished so that the annual graduation rate was around 20, while geology majors numbered well over 100, chaos in the country notwithstanding. In the initial development of the department, great emphasis was placed on field trips on weekends. In the present setting cooperation made it possible to raise the bar so that currently, each prospective graduate spends several months in apprenticeship with an industry during which he/she completes a substantial field project, writes a thesis on it, and presents it before the faculty. Amazing indeed!

I am deeply grateful to Albert Chie, chair, Department of Geology, University of Liberia for the invitation and making my visit to Liberia a possibility.

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