NAGT Distinguished Speaker... In New zealand?

published Feb 23, 2010 4:32pm

by Eric B. Grosfils, Geology Department, Pomona College

From the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2009 it was my distinct privilege to serve as a Distinguished Lecturer for NAGT. As is true for all Distinguished Lecturers in the program I suspect, during this period I had the opportunity to exchange ideas with dedicated, teaching-focused geoscience colleagues across the country, in settings that ranged from major research universities to small liberal arts colleges. I enjoyed these interactions immensely, though I found them very humbling as well, and can only hope that those who invited me benefited from our discourse as much as I did!

In one way, however, my experience was perhaps unique. During the first half of 2009, my last semester as a Distinguished Lecturer, I took a sabbatical, in support of which I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright U.S. Senior Scholar award to conduct research with volcanology colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Since clearly making regular trans-Pacific flights to fulfill my NAGT responsibilities in the U.S. would be a bit ridiculous, I approached both the Director (Cathy Manduca) and then-President (Eric Riggs) of NAGT with a proposal that I serve as the first "international ambassador" for the program -- an idea which they supported enthusiastically. I'm incredibly glad that they did. While in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to deliver an invited, NAGT-sponsored Distinguished Lecturer colloquium at the University of Otago, the University of Canterbury, and the University of Auckland. As was true of my previous experiences in the U.S., I was warmly received and graciously hosted, and in formal and informal settings at each institution I had a chance to explore teaching challenges and successes as well as pedagogical approaches with both faculty and graduate students. Intriguingly, there were some strong similarities. For example my colloquia, which focused on finding effective, beneficial ways to introduce Computational Science initiatives into an undergraduate setting, were met with an initial mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism in both countries -- enthusiasm for the ideas, skepticism that there are broad opportunities for 'normal' (meaning, by their definition, less quantitatively inclined) faculty to apply them within their own field. Brainstorming ideas with my peers and their students to help us all see applications within their specific courses was a fun, valuable exercise I performed at nearly every institution I visited. As a second example, when learning about the immense difficulty some NZ programs are having because they unexpectedly face both immense class sizes and poor graduate student retention in the face of financial incentives that commonly lure students into mineral exploration in Australia, I was reminded of discussions with colleagues in Texas, where similar pressures largely result from an upswing in the field of oil exploration. How, exactly, does a single professor faced with teaching 70 structural geology students succeed at training the students properly? I don't know the answer to that, and I'm not sure that anyone else does yet either, but it is certain that many instructors in the US and NZ are regularly faced with trying to meet this sort of challenge, a fact that I hadn't fully appreciated and which is leading me to consider new ways to develop my own curricular ideas in order to facilitate their dissemination and enhance their broader utility given the situations my colleagues experience.

Serving as NAGT's first international ambassador was an honor, and I hope that others can continue promoting this kind of opportunity abroad in the future. If I had to pick one thing I value most highly from my international Distinguished Lecturer experience, it would be a deeper appreciation for the fact that teaching students well in different settings is a task that cuts across languages, across countries, and across disciplines. To meet the challenges we face, and to benefit from the opportunities that are available, it will continue to be important for the members of NAGT to connect with their peer associations in other countries and then do what they do best: bring their creative energies to the table to write the next new chapter in the field of geoscience education.