Monday, 15 July 2013

A Rocking Good Time: Going Back to School

An important part of my job is fund raising – meeting with (potential) donors and helping them determine whether the Faculty of Science is a good philanthropic match for their interests. I have met literally hundreds of donors in my first year as Dean. By and large, they share little in common other than their passion for wanting to make the University of Alberta a better place for students, staff, and/or faculty.

On average, the most affluent graduates from the Faculty of Science are those that pursued a geology-related program. With Alberta’s enormous wealth below ground (oil and gas), there are many Science graduates that struck it rich finding oil, creating oil companies, running oil companies, or servicing the oil economy. When you talk to these people, you discover that all of them have strong memories of their time at the University of Alberta. But in all cases, one student experience in particular stands out: their time spent in the geology field school(s).

Our geology program, part of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has several 10-day intensive courses that bring the student out of the University classroom and into the classroom of the real world. To truly understand geology, one must go to where the rocks are interesting, so that you can get first-hand experience seeing natural formations, analyzing them, mapping them, and inferring their past. Understanding the evolution of a terrain is the key to understanding what might lie below.

It’s one thing to meet a prospective donor and hear the passion that they use to describe their field school experience. It’s another thing to really understand what they are talking about. So, if one is to talk the talk, one has to walk the walk. In May, I took three days off and joined the course EAS234, a 10-day field school in Jasper National Park. I wanted to better understand why this was such an important experience for our geology graduates.

Mount Edith Cavell, as seen from the top of a hill while doing EAS234 mapping. 
EAS234 is very demanding. Students work in the field from 8:30 to 5:00 every day. They return to base and then process the data gathered from their fieldwork as part of their nightly homework. They break for an hour to have dinner, but then return to their analysis. Their homework is due by 9:00, gets marked that night, and returned to the students the next morning. This goes on for ten days. Although it sounds like the course is a holiday (“spend 10 days in Jasper and get credit for it!”), in reality the students work hard from the first day to the last day. 

Co-instructor Sarah Gleeson (right) working late at night grading assignments with the teaching assistants.
Each day they would be bussed from their hotel to an interesting geologic area in the Jasper region. Rain or shine, they would then work continually in the field, except for a one-hour lunch break. The first few days of the Jasper school were very cold (including snow for one of the EAS234 student groups based in Nordegg), but when I arrived the weather turned unpleasantly hot. Too cold is distressing, but I can assure you that too hot is equally uncomfortable – especially when you are out in the mountains with little opportunity for shade and no cold drinks. Regardless of the weather, the students would soldier on, doing whatever was necessary to get the data they needed.

Much of the fieldwork effort was spent building a map that described the geologic history of the region they were mapping. To do this they had to look for clues. They would scour the land looking for rock outcrops and from these observe the type of rock, the layers in the rock, and their shape/formation. All of these are clues that allow a trained geologist to infer what must have happened over eons of time. Mapping the ancient history of the land is not an exact science. From one’s observations one can infer what likely happened. But different geologists using different rock samples might come up with alternate conclusions. Still, it is fascinating to see the clues in the rocks and being to understand what might have happened to result in what you are observing. This can include tectonic plate activity, volcanic activity, ancient ocean deposits, and so on. Every rock formation tells a story going back many millions (even billions) of years.

Co-instructor Octavian Catuneanu showing an interesting geological feature at Athabasca Falls.
There was one moment that defined the entire trip for me. I joined a team of three students that was building a map of  the geologic history of  a region just outside the town of Jasper. The students plowed ahead with their map making, looking at rocks, and following the direction that the rocks pointed in. They made all the right inferences, and were the first to reach the far end of the mapping region. Rather than waiting for the other students to catch up, they followed their instinct and went in a direction that would eventually return them to the starting point. The chosen path required some awkward climbing. Convinced that they were on the right path, they kept moving along, mapping as they went. It was rather eerie being alone in the mountains, knowing that there were 10 other teams out there doing the same thing, but none were in sight. Eventually self-doubt began to creep in, and the students questioned whether they had been mistaken in their choice of path. As they moved through the hilly terrain, they were diligent in building their map and observing the geology. But something didn’t seem right. The lines on the map didn’t match their preconceived expectation – this didn’t confirm to the “textbook” examples they were familiar with. As the students paused and wondered what they had done wrong, one student said “What if…” and suddenly there was an explosion of excited chatter. What if the scenario they were observing wasn’t straight out of a textbook? What if the odd curving of the geologic lines was because, well, things are different in the real world? A couple of minutes later they had their answer; they understood what was happening and were visibly confident in their realization.

Examining a rock outcrop.
This is an example of a wonderful “Ah ha!” moment, where there’s a sudden insight and deep learning happens. The students were excited at their discovery, and I was excited to witness this delightful moment of understanding. After all, this is exactly what a university education should be about.

Of course, I have had the pleasure of witnessing “Ah ha!” moments with my graduate students many times before. Every one of those times is a special memory.

The team of students that I was privileged to spend time with received the highest mark in the class for their work that day. At the end of the course, they were awarded a special prize for creating the best map in the class.

Non-student observers of the course.
The field school is all about creating a deeper learning of Nature and the wonders of our planet. The students work hard for 10 days making for a concentrated and intense learning experience. The members of a team bond with each other, and these bonds often last well beyond their University of Alberta days. This is no ordinary course, which is why it gets etched in the memories of all the participants.

I had a wonderful time participating in EAS234. I learned something about rocks and geology. I met some wonderful people. And I now have a greater appreciation as to why past geology students can regale me stories of their time spent at field school, in some cases going back 50 years.

Monday, 1 July 2013

One Year On

One year ago I became the Dean of Science at the University of Alberta. I was nervous about this position as, like any new job, there is always doubt as to whether one can succeed. At the back of my mind was the worry that this would be my "Peter Principle job" – rising to my highest level of incompetence. The jury is still out about the Peter Principle, but I do feel comfortable in my new role.

The year has had several highlights, some of which I would like to share with you:
  • The Faculty of Science has an impressive team of professors, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students. I did not fully appreciate this at first, but over time my admiration grew. "Impressive" sounds like a generous adjective, but it is an apt description. For example, the past year has seen numerous members of Science receive prestigious awards, lifetime achievement awards, research prizes, scholarships, teaching awards, and service awards. If it were just a handful of awards, then "impressive" would be an exaggeration. It’s a bushel full, and that’s impressive! There is a commitment to excellence, and it shows throughout the Faculty of Science.
  • It has been amazingly fun and an incredible learning experience to find out about all the cool things going on in Science. Many researchers (from professors to students) are working on projects that excite the imagination. Whether it be looking at bones from 65 million years ago, understanding what happens when the temperature drops to within a degree of absolute zero, predicting the effects of climate warming on the polar ice cap, working with oil companies to reduce environmental impact, preparing to send an experiment into space, or getting a better understanding of the causes of some diseases, every scientist has a story to tell. I have heard many stories and all the storytellers have infectious passion for their work.
  • We have made great faculty hires in Science. The quality of people we are attracting to Edmonton is a reflection of the quality of the Faculty of Science.
  • An unexpected surprise for me has been meeting with donors and alumni. Actually, I feared this part of the job, as I am not the most social of people. Instead, I found most of these interactions to be fun and engaging. Every donor/alumnus has a story to tell. It is amazing to hear what people have accomplished with their University of Alberta degree.
  • Convocation this year was a highlight for me (see last month's posting). It was a delight to personally congratulate this year’s class on their milestone achievement.
  • The Faculty of Science has started moving down the road of offering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Our first MOOC will launch in September – affectionately called "Dino 101" (actually PALEO 200: Dinosaur Paleobiology). It has been a huge amount of work by a lot of passionate people to prepare this high-quality course for the world. You should consider taking the course – for free or for credit.

Okay. so not everything has been rosy. Along with the fun part of the job, one also has to take the pain. And there has been some pain...
  • Budget. What else can I say? On March 7, 2013 the Alberta Government shocked everyone by deciding to cut the post-secondary sector in Alberta by 7.2% (actually 9.2%). This has been a massive blow to all the affected institutions. The University of Alberta is still wrestling with how to handle this enormous loss of funding. The Faculty of Science’s budget has been reduced by over 4% this year, with more cuts coming in the next two years. I became Dean with the intent of growing the Faculty of Science both in size and in reputation. Instead I find myself doing damage control, making hard decisions how to shrink the Faculty in the least harmful way. 
  • The job involves an enormous amount of work. It seems impossible to escape it, seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is no notion of a 40-hour workweek. At one point I kept track of how many hours I worked each day but abandoned it after two weeks; the results were too depressing.
  • I have been frustrated with the level of bureaucracy at the University of Alberta. Everything seems takes longer to get done than it should. Even "obvious" things can get mired in paperwork. Sometimes I fantasize about throwing out all the rules/regulations and just getting on with the job and doing the right thing (and ask for forgiveness later).
  •  I eat out too often and it is bad for my waistline. Donor meetings. Awards ceremonies. Visitors.  Celebratory events. Too many.
What’s in store for the next year? Clearly the budget will be the dominant issue in most people’s minds. For me, I look forward to September and the launch of Dino 101. I hope it/s everything we dreamed of – a superb online experience that will excite learners of all ages. What’s cooler than a free course on dinosaurs?