Friday, October 8, 2010

Reflections on an Accretionary Wedge: Why I am a Proud Member of the NAGT

(cross-posted at

I recently contributed to the latest Accretionary Wedge by talking about my first geology field trip, a 5 day backpack in the depths of the Grand Canyon way back in 1976. Part of the subsequent fallout was the unearthing of pictures of that trip, courtesy of Joy, who was one of my fellow travelers at the time (Facebook has some positive aspects, actually). I am a visually oriented learner, and my memories are most strongly reinforced by photographs, so this was a real pleasure to be able to relive part of my past with these grainy reminders (weren't Kodak Instamatics a wonderful form of photography?). For instance, I don't remember his name, but the bearded gentleman on the left was a very vocal vegetarian, but during the trip he seemed to get hungrier and hungrier, and when we reached the rim at the end of the five days, he looked at the menu in the Grand Canyon Lodge, and ordered a huge steak...

The professor who led that trip into the canyon was my inspiration to become a teacher of geology. That's him in the picture above, explaining to us how the basaltic sills were able to intrude the sediments of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, and how they helped us to place a date on the formation of those sediments. I still remember the shock of realizing that I really could almost literally travel through time by holding and understanding the origin of rocks that were hundreds of millions years old (imagine seeing the imprint of a raindrop that hit the ground 800 million years ago!). Looking at a picture of Marlin at work, I realize that I can trace many of the ideas I use in teaching to the things that he did all those years ago. Innovative ideas in teaching appear all the time, and they can be very effective, but I am reminded that the geological sciences are among the most historical of the academic disciplines as well. I mean this in the sense that there is an academic lineage that gives us a direct link to the founders of the science of geology, and that those brilliant and perceptive minds continue on with a different form of immortality (I wrote about this for a different Accretionary Wedge two years ago). I think what I am really saying is that people often become geologists and teachers not so much because they planned on it the way kids plan on being firefighters or police officers, but because they were inspired to pursue it because of the dedication of their teachers. I know I am over-generalizing about this, but I just don't see someone pursuing an MBA because he or she was inspired by a particularly good economics teacher, though I am willing to listen to counter-arguments! People have many different motivations for choosing their academic goals, after all.

I am thinking about this because I am preparing to drove down to Fresno to attend the fall meeting of the Far Western Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers at CSU Fresno (there is still room if you want to drop everything you are doing and drive on into the center of California and see some excellent Sierra Nevada and Coast Range geology- details are here). I joined NAGT nearly fifteen years ago, and have found in my involvement with the organization a sense of history and tradition of excellent teachers, and a myriad of innovative ideas and approaches to the teaching of the geological sciences. It has been a real privilege to work and share ideas with my colleagues from California, Nevada and Hawaii, as well as from all over the country. It's one thing to be inspired to follow an academic discipline because of the work of one or two excellent teachers, and quite another to travel with a large group of talented and innovative teachers who are collectively inspiring hundreds of students. And for that matter, because we encourage students to attend these meetings, it is great to see how they are laying the groundwork for the future of the earth sciences.
1976...that was 34 years ago. Wow. I still have that orange Alpenlite backpack with the innovative wrap-around aluminum frame (I actually worked in their factory for a few months all those years ago). I tried it on the other day, the way someone might try on the tux they wore to the high school prom. And just like the tux, the aluminum frame must have shrunk. Aluminum can shrink, right? I know I haven't changed and gotten...bigger. The frame obviously has shrunk!

1 comment:

  1. I went to my first NAGT-FWS meeting in Reno in 1985 - 25 years ago - and have been involved ever since. I have enjoyed every meeting i've been to, and have met some incredible people - yourself included - that I've learned A LOT from. It literally changed my life. I owe much of who and what I am now to my 25 years with NAGT. Thanks for the post, Garry, and for your years of service. I hope the Robert Norris's, Joan Baldwin's, and Dee Trent's are happy with where we've come. Good times. Thanks, Garry.