View from Acadia (December 2011)
I was sitting in the Structural Geology lab exam recently, watching the third year students as they struggled with down-plunge projections and Mohr’s circles derived from strained trilobites. You may remember your turn in that particular sweatshop – it’s something of a rite of passage for many Geology majors. Having run out of small tasks to while away the hours, I took to pondering on how this class differed from classes 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 years ago. It’s not quite 40 years since I first studied Structural Geology, but 2012 will mark 40 years since I embarked on university study, and 30 years since I started teaching at Acadia.
Another change is of course is in the techno-aids that surround the students in the exam room. Almost all have a computer with them to plot the stereonets, a calculator to add or subtract that awkward 180° to the azimuths, and a plethora of gadgets that ensure connection with the world or music to blank the world out. Only one telephone went off in this exam, much to one student’s embarrassment, but I swear I heard blackberries and iphones buzzing every 10 minutes. Interestingly, the four people who plotted the stereonet by hand all got the data placed correctly, but 35% of the students who plotted on the computer plotted planes as poles or poles as planes. Lesson here: you’ve got to know what you are doing with those black (or silver or orange or green) boxes.
The third difference I note is in the outlook of the students in the class. Only four out of the 21 students in the class actually started out in Geology, and two of them are attempting degrees in Biology or Physics with Geology as the second major. Others have come from Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, History and Environmental Science, as their impressions of what they might do with their degree have evolved over the years since Frosh Week. Three of them are also transfer students from technical programs in Ontario, where they have identified the need for a degree in Geology as beneficial to their long-term prospects. These people have put a lot of thought and planning into their schooling and are well into the stage of investing in a career. Not all are destined to jobs on the mine site, core shack or high rise tower in Calgary – some are looking to grad school, some to teaching, some to business, and some even to professional sport as a career, but I think all of them see their education in Geology as a vital step along the way, and at least a viable fall-back should their dreams not work out. I am sure students 30 years ago had many of the same dreams, but it seems to me that the commitment to the subject has intensified. Maybe it’s something to do with the cost of it!
I could identify other differences – hair styles are definitely shorter, ball caps seem to have had their day, and clothes are even more casual. However, some things haven’t changed much at all – whether you studied with George Stevens, Alan Macdonald, or another professor, Structural Geology still marks an important transition in geological education. For some, it is the recognition that Maths and Physics have some relevance to rocks; for others it involves the first real insights into thinking and graphing in three dimensions, and it’s not necessarily the student who always gets an A who is the one who really grasps it. I hope all students discover that Geology is more than just facts about the Earth, and that their understanding is stretched by the course. And of course, the whole class now has a new tool in their kitbag – anyone found an app for stereonet plotting yet?