Saturday, August 30, 2008

Questioning the system

Well, the Oreo activity hasn't happened yet, but my first lab sessions didn't totally freak me out, and none of the students walked out in disgust. I guess that means I'm doing well so far! (The first lab sessions are always hand-out-the-syllabus, anyway, which isn't particularly strenuous.)

I am questioning the general universe as to how I ended up with a Friday afternoon lab composed entirely of males, several of whom were obviously eying me with the "Hey, look, a chick. My good looks and charming nature are obviously going to get me an easy A." (Or something to that effect but less eloquent.) Good thing lab is only once every two weeks - half the crap to put up with. And, fortunately, they give us a roster with everybody's photos on it, so I can at least use their names when I tell them to cut the crap and do their work. (Honestly, I think they'll behave, but just in case...)

At any rate, starting my TA duties has made me think about the way that a geologist - or most any kind of scientist - becomes a teacher as well. It's one of the great failings of the sciences, in my opinion, that scientists who also want to become academics receive very little formal training in how to be a teacher. K-12 teachers, in most cases, receive extensive training, and usually have a degree in education and are formally certified. But scientists who teach, unless they spend time as a TA, or take classes on their own initiative, are not expected to go through the same rigorous training. They are, instead, dropped into a classroom setting and expected to know how to handle students, write lesson plans and syllabi, create exams, and oversee the education of possibly hundreds of young people who have been steeped in an entirely different method of learning. (I had exactly three days of "training" in a conference that was so generalized as to be somewhat useless to someone who's teaching in a lab setting, although it was really helpful to be exposed to some modern theories of education.)

What's more, the situation is self-perpetuating. Academic scientists succeed in their fields because they can excel in the lecture-based classroom, and when it comes time for them to teach, they tend to utilize the methods of the instructors they learned the most from. Perhaps some learned more from a professor who used active learning techniques, or some other alternative than lecture, but at some point they all end up teaching with lectures.

How in the world did we end up with a system like this? My college roommate, who now teaches high school chemistry, had to spend her senior year completing the equivalent of a masters in education, do weeks of supervised student teaching, and obtain a state certification before she could take on a classroom. I, on the other hand, will be plunked in a lecture hall with hundreds of undergrads and expected to develop a syllabus, lesson plans and testing strategy with practically no training (if I decide to become a professor someday). I certainly don't think that having a Ph.D. makes me more qualified than her to be a teacher, but our current system of academia does - at least as far as university-level education is concerned.

(Not to mention that I'm already totally, irrationally nervous about my teaching abilities in the first place. If I'm this insecure about being a TA, what the heck would happen to me if I did decide to become a professor somewhere? I'm sure it would be mitigated somewhat by the TA experience, but being an assistant and being the instructor are very different positions.)

So, geoblogosphere, what are your opinions? Do you think you were properly prepared for your teaching responsibilities, or would you have appreciated having formal training like a K-12 educator is expected to? Why do we still have this situation in academia, and what are your ideas about fixing it?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Accretionary Wedge #12: Geology as a connector science

Hooray! I finally have both a working computer and internet connection. Definite cause for celebration, since I can now get back to blogging - at least as much as grad school allows, that is.

Even more cause for celebration: This is post #100! I think it's fitting that it should be an Accretionary Wedge entry, since at least part of the reason I started blogging was to connect with other people in the "geoblogosphere" - and what better way to do that than an online panel discussion? (Hey, there's that connection theme again.)

I've decided to write about something that's going to happen in a few days: I'm going to stand in front of an introductory geology lab and try to convince myself that I'm qualified to be teaching people who are only a few years younger than me. I expect that many of them will be freshmen, or non-science majors, who are in the class because they have to fulfill a science requirement. My undergrad classmates called this the "Rocks for Jocks" phenomenon, and we always laughed gleefully afterward, because we knew that anyone who picked geology because it was a "soft" science would be very surprised when they got to class. This phenomenon is also, in my opinion, at the root of the difficulties that science educators have keeping geology in science curricula at the K12 level. We as geologists all know that geology is one of the most inclusive sciences there is - but how do we get this across?

One of my main concerns is to make my labs not only fun for my students, but relevant to their lives. They're probably used to thinking of sciences as compartmentalized - this is chemistry, this is physics, this is astronomy, etc. I want to prove to them that not only is this untrue, but that they've probably used or relied on geology - and all the other sciences it incorporates - on a daily basis.

I'm planning on doing a short activity based on one that my mineralogy professor did early on in his course. I'll be handing out Oreos (knowing full well that food is an excellent tool for bribery), then asking the students to think about what goes into them (and the packaging). Once we've got a list, I'm going to ask them to tell me where each ingredient comes from, and how it is obtained. This is a great place to bring geology - and other sciences - into the discussion. Cocoa, for example, is commonly grown in tropical climates, and in rich volcanic soils (like in Central America). That chocolate flavor came (ultimately) from a volcano! The white filling is colored with TiO2, otherwise known as rutile, which can also be found in quartz crystals. There are minerals in that cookie! The plastic wrapper and tray are made from chemicals derived from petroleum products, which started as rotting leaves in a coal swamp teeny dead ocean critters hundreds of millions of years ago! And so on.

The value in the activity - aside from the brief boost in attention span resulting from sugar intake - is that they see the connections that science, and geology in particular, have to their everyday lives. Geology isn't just something that grubby, bespectacled rockhounds do off in the mountains somewhere; it's something that ultimately helps produce the food we eat, the packaging that keeps it fresh, the fuel for transporting it, the nuclear energy that runs the lights in the grocery store, and more.

Hopefully, in trying to communicate how geology is intimately connected to our lives, I'll also be able to get across how important it is to me, and how exciting I find it because of all those wonderful connections. And, according to the people in my three-day "how to not fail as a teacher" training session, getting your students excited about learning is the most important part of the job.

And there are some thoughts on connections, with a bit of wandering thrown in. (And after what I've gone through to get moved into a new apartment in a new state and trying not to panic about teaching and taking classes, I think I'm allowed a few tangents!)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Roughing it

Another apology for the long delay in posts...who knew that moving to your first apartment required so much work? (And an unnecessarily long delay in getting internet access.) I'll be trying to post this weekend, and possibly joining in the next PodClast (if I can review all the current events in time - again, difficult without internet).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Costa Rica: Volcanoes in the mist

Costa Rica lies at the boundary where the Caribbean Plate is subducted underneath the Cocos Plate. Both are relatively small, compared to the North American or Pacific Plates, but the subduction zone forms a string of volcanoes (the Central American Arc) that stretches from Costa Rica to Guatemala. Costa Rica contains six: Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, Arenal, Poas, Turrialba, and Irazu. Turrialba and Irazu are both located very close to the capitol city of San Jose, and the area's older residents still remember the damaging effects of the ashfall from Irazu's 1963-65 eruptions. Mirivalles is the only volcano which has not experienced any significant historical eruptions, although it has shown fumarolic activity.

Costa Rica's volcanoes play an indispensable role in its economy and history. The rich volcanic soil is perfect for growing the country's three main cash crops: bananas, pineapples and coffee. (All of which are fantastic, by the way, and ridiculously cheap when you're there. I don't think I went a whole day without having some form of pineapple.) Volcanoes are also good for tourism, and help make Costa Rica the most visited Central American country. They are still dangerous, however; Irazu's eruptions in the 60s killed at least 20 people and destroyed buildings with ash and mudflows, and Arenal's 1968 eruption
killed 87 people and buried 3 small villages (Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luís).

My first visit was to Volcan Poas, a stratovolcano about an hour's drive from Alajuela (where I was staying for the majority of my trip). Driving to Poas takes you from the suburbs of San Jose, which still have some scattered patches of jungle, up into the high slopes of the Cordillera - coffee country that eventually gives way to cloud forest. And, because it's cloud forest, it is very, very cloudy. In fact, when we reached the volcano, you couldn't tell there was anything there.

After an hour of waiting, the clouds suddenly decided to start blowing away, revealing the central crater. I've never heard a crowd cheer for a volcano before - my kind of people!

Poas has two craters that both contain lakes, but this one is the site of numerous phreatic and phreatomagmatic eruptions since 1828 (the southernmost crater, Botos, last erupted 7,500 years ago).

Poas shows a somewhat varied suite of lavas - basalt, andesite, and low-silica dacite are all present, although the younger caldera contains a lot of basaltic andesite (and, from the look of the deposits, ash and pumice as well).

The lake is very sulfur-rich, and the side closest to the viewing platform has an active fumarole that imparted the essential whiff of sulfur dioxide (and a bit of hydrogen sulfide) to the air. I like the smell, strangely enough, but most people nearby didn't agree.

The clouds briefly cleared enough to afford a view of one of a small valley leading to the volcano's lower slopes, and what would undoubtedly be a funnel for any pyroclastic flows and lahars to come out of the crater.

Later in the trip, we took an overnight trip to the town of La Fortuna, a tourist mecca built around the base of Volcan Arenal in the northwest part of the country. There are dozens of hotels, resorts, and spas in a loop around the volcano, but getting to the national park takes a bit of driving. These signs show up in quite a few places, and naturally, as a death-defying geologist, I had to get a photo of myself scoffing at one.

A short 2km hike brings you to an andesite lava flow erupted (I think) in 1993. Arenal, which is mainly an andesitic stratovolcano, is very young - its oldest rocks are less than 3,000 years old, and the most recent period of eruptive activity has been ongoing since 1968. Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America (and possibly the world), but because of weather patterns around the volcano (particularly in the rainy season), it's almost impossible to see the entire cone. Eruptions vary between explosive and effusive, but since the lavas are andesitic, they don't flow very far, and create very bouldery and blocky flows rather than the smooth extensive ones you'd see on a shield volcano.

This is a pretty typical view of the cone. It's actually a lot higher than you would expect, but in two days, we only saw the top for maybe a minute. (Unfortunately, being the rainy season, it rained at night, and there was no way to tell if there was any eruptive activity going on.)

We did stay on the lava flow for long enough to hear the rumbling of rockfalls going on, and this fairly recent rock avalanche (possibly a small pyroclastic flow) was still steaming in the rain.

It's easy to tell that Arenal is an active volcano, even without seeing an eruption, because the deposits from eruptive activity cover the slopes and keep the normally relentless jungle life from retaking the slopes.

Not seeing any eruptions was disappointing, but Arenal is still a remarkably beautiful volcano, and a fun place to spend a weekend.

Almost every hotel has a great view of the cone (or would if the clouds ever went away), and there are lots of restaurants and - one of my favorite parts - hot springs to visit. Several of the hot springs have been turned into small theme parks, with waterslides and spa services and exorbitant entrance fees, but if you look carefully, you can find the ones the locals go to. They're often not marked, but they're much less expensive, and it's not uncommon to see entire families visiting them for the day, complete with grandparents and young children and pets and enough food to feed a small army. And hey, if all you're doing is lounging in hot water and staring intently at the volcano, why not save your money for dinner afterwards?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Costa Rica: Don't drink the water...but the swimming's fine

I'm back! Having survived Costa Rica's rainy season, attacks by macaws and capuchins, cheesy coffee tour guides and every kind of biting insect in existence (and all without getting sunburned!), I have lots of great photos and stories to tell. As my masters research may be taking me to Guatemala, I was glad to have the chance to spend time in a Central American country, although I have to report that my Spanish is only slightly improved (meaning I know how to ask "What's in this food" and several different ways to swear at kamikaze drivers). I am glad, however, to be back in a country where I can drink the water and don't have to put up with whistles and suggestive leering just because I'm female and breathing. (Most people were very nice, actually, but I could have done without the whole "macho" culture experience.)

Costa Rica is an amazingly beautiful country, and topographically quite varied. The Costa Rican Cordillera make up the backbone of the country, stretching from the northwestern hills to the more central volcanoes (Arenal, Poas, Irazu, Turrialba), to the highest peaks near the southeastern border with Panama. Most people live in the Meseta Central, a huge central valley region centered on the capital city of San Jose. Costa Rica's lowlands are scanty on the Pacific coast, where you don't leave the mountains and hills until you're pretty much on the beach (or in the water), but the less populated Caribbean coast has much larger lowland areas. Forests are nearly everywhere you go, from the lush jungles on the coasts and in the central valley to the clammy cloud forests on the high peaks and volcanoes.

The people in Costa Rica tend to cluster around San Jose and its suburbs (Alajuela, Cartago), or in small towns linked by winding two-lane (or one-lane) roads through the mountains. The tourist areas (Jaco, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna) are full of hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops, and have growing populations of ticos (Costa Ricans), but they're isolated, and seem to have popped up more like shantytowns than fixed establishments. I spent the first few days of my trip at one of these, the town and national park of Manuel Antonio, one of the most popular ecotourism sites in the country.

To get to Manuel Antonio from Alajuela, it's a two hour drive through the mountains. The mountains last pretty much until you hit the coast - in fact, Manuel Antonio's hotels and restaurants are all built on steep hills. It's impossible to get a beachfront hotel unless you're really lucky - otherwise, you have to do some walking.

Some of the restaurants have slight aircraft problems. This one houses a pretty popular bar.

Dogs, sloths and monkeys are very common in Manuel Antonio. Apparently so are very short children in Darth Vader outfits.

The beaches, however, are often nearly deserted - and quite beautiful.

And when you can have views like this from your hotel room? Even Darth Vader couldn't spoil the stay. This is the Hotel Costa Verde, which is listed as "Expensive" in guidebooks, but because of the good exchange rate for US dollars is actually quite reasonable.

This is the walk to the room, which is part of a complex of small buildings set into the hillside. I was in the "Adults Only" section, which was absolutely wonderful - instead of screaming children, all we heard were screaming howler monkeys. (On second thought, howler monkeys are louder and more disturbing than most small children. Let me tell you, hearing one of those things outside your window at 3AM is not relaxing.)

Down by the pool bar, you can meet the regulars...

...and have breakfast with some really laid-back folks.

Of course, you should always be on the lookout for pickpockets when you visit the beaches.

But what would a blog entry be without some geology? This geology happens to have a few crabs sitting on it...

...but nearby are some great conglomerates. There was quite a bit of green in these rocks, although I neglected to bring my hand lens along to investigate more thoroughly. (Terrible thing to forget, I know!)

Of course, I didn't spend all my time on the beach staring at rocks. Some of it I spent sleeping, or defending my towel from roving bands of capuchin monkeys or hermit crabs.

Next on the menu: volcanoes (with some actual discussions of geology) and city life in San Jose.