Mineral News

May 2006

 

                     

Opinion

American Education System Flunks Geology Usefulness Exam

 

By Tony Nikischer tony@excaliburmineral.com

 

You should know that I'm wearing my dealer hat and my Hudson Institute hat as I write this short opinion piece. As such, know that I have a strong bias and a couple of axes to grind, so if you disagree with what I have to say, speak up! We welcome ink wars and will happily print opposing views. That said, let me repeat and refine my topic: The American educational system has generally done a poor job of maintaining viable geology and mineralogy programs at many colleges and universities, and it is largely their (the institutions') own fault! Nasty and accusatory, isn't it?

During this year's Tucson show, I had occasion to talk to a number of both practicing and retired geologists and mineralogists about the condition of the profession in the U.S. today. The general , consensus was a pretty dismal view of what lies ahead. Many said that the companies they work(ed) for are experiencing great difficulty in locating, hiring and maintaining professionals on staff who can actually "pick up a rock and tell you what it is".

Some opined that recent student crops have yielded good technicians with black box wizardry skills in the laboratory environment, but those graduates were woefully deficient in field work capability. Others suggested that in another fifteen years or so, a decent American field geologist or practicing mineralogist will be just a memory. Companies looking for those skills will have to go elsewhere, beyond the U.S. borders. So much for our educational superiority!

Quizzing professional educators in the field resulted in a disappointing summary of opinions of what has happened: 1) Geology and mineralogy are no longer considered useful or glitzy sciences; 2) There is little administrative support for teaching these disciplines at many institutions; 3) There is little or no work for graduates, so there is no interest among students, either.

 

In summary, why teach this stuff anymore if one cannot hope to make a good living at it?

Well, I don't know many philosophy majors who work as philosophers, nor do I know of many institutions that have stopped teaching philosophy because there are no jobs in the field! Since when did making money drive our educational focus? When it comes to science, has "the American Dream" really become "make lots of money", and if we can't make money at it, why maintain proficiency in it?

††††††† I recently spent a week with noted Russian mineralogist Igor Pekov and his wife, Anya, a prolific scientist in her own right. Both teach at Moscow State University, one of the leading educational institutions in Russia. Wearing my Hudson Institute hat, I quizzed them about the number of geology graduates, their career opportunities after graduation and the educational focus of the sciences in Russia. How is it that Russia, and still much of Europe, manages to turn out productive mineralogists and geologists? News flash: only about 20% of the 200 annual geology graduates at Moscow State University actually get a job in the field, not a very different situation from here, apparently. But, the science education process continues nonetheless! Why?

 

The reasons are both complex and revealing: despite the relatively low career opportunity rate, the Russians still value the science and the cultural traditions it carries. (As a rule, I have always been more impressed with the average Europeans' broad-based cultural development as seen when traveling in such countries as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia and elsewhere.) Developing well-rounded individuals with a broad base education is still considered important, and geology serves as a gateway to many other disciplines. One must learn some chemistry, physics and math, develop some problem solving and observational skills, become adept at sophisticated instrumentation and more, all contributing to that broad base of "getting an education". Those skills provide opportunities,in many other fields, stretching from materials†††† science to environmental engineering andeducation. The Russians get it, why can't our own educational institutions? If we still can teach philosophy with its dismal career prospects, why not geology, too? Addressing student lack of interest, we as mineral collectors have a certain obligation to the future of both our hobby and the science. How do we get away from the "rocks for jocks" stigma ~- that is prevalent in high school earth science programs?

What can we do to encourage more young collectors to join our admittedly aging ranks? Wouldn't it be great to discover that colleges have to reinstate a geology curriculum because of expanding student interest, instead of the other way around? Patriotism aside, what are we doing to help restore U.S. mastery and prominence in this important science and its future?

Without burying everyone in the statistics, it can be generally concluded that earth science has become an orphan child of the science education system. Certification rates among its teachers are generally lower than say biology or chemistry, and the number of new graduates with appropriate geology backgrounds to teach the subject is seriously declining.

While there are no simple answers, I believe getting kids interested in minerals and mineral collecting is a long-term objective we, as collectors, should be striving for. Share your collection and your knowledge with youngsters, interest them in field trips, promote the hobby through presentations and displays at schools and other public places. Be sure your local club has an active and interesting youth program, and make yourself available to scouting groups in your area (yes, they still have geology merit badges!). Plant a seed, and perhaps it will grow. Let's hear what Mineral News readers are doing to help!

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Mineral News

June 2006

Readerís Reaction:

"American Education System Flunks Geology Usefulness Exam"

Your comments on the decline of the earth sciences in American higher education are echoed in two articles by Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes that appeared in the April and May 2004 issues of Geotimes, published by the American Geological Institute. The trend toward eliminating geoscience programs at colleges and universities is both short-sighted and foolish, especially now when we are facing major issues like global warming, coping with natural disasters like Katrina or tsunamis, seeking critical raw materials for a growing population, and providing clean and adequate water resources for a growing population. Geology and the earth sciences should lie at the core of a sound science curriculum, rather than at the periphery! The fault lies not only with narrow-minded administrators who perceive too few job opportunities or declining student enrollments, but also with the geology profession that until quite recently has not spoken out forcefully enough to point out the many useful contributions to society made by geologists. The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, despite many cutbacks in recent years, is actively engaged in public outreach, gearing many of its programs to perceived public needs and producing many "user friendly" reports and datasets. Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes urge college professors to "actively proselytize", making people aware of the importance of geology to society and to publicize the department's accomplishments at every opportunity, including participation in public events.

The decline in mineralogy is especially sad. Mineralogy has had a long, distinguished history, closely entwined with the development of inorganic chemistry and physics from the 18th to early 20th centuries. While mineralogy has become a "mature" science in that most fundamental or theoretical discoveries have already been made, it is still a vital science with many interesting and important applications, a few of which are outlined here. As recent articles in Mineral News point out, remote sensing of mineral and chemical composition has become an important tool in Solar System exploration, e.g., Mars, also the asteroids, or moons of Jupiter, Saturn. Mineralogy also plays a useful role in many industrial applications, such as materials science, ceramics, zeolites, crystal growing. For example, diamond synthesis is of growing importance in coating materials, abrasives, and perhaps the next generation of computer chips. Gemology, a subdiscipline of mineralogy, increasingly relies on advanced analytical techniques in order to detect synthetic or treated gemstones. Mineralogy forms an essential part of deep-earth research, from sourcing inclusions in diamonds, to mineral phase transformation under high pressure, even to seismology. The way in which rocks deform and break can ultimately be traced to defects in the crystal lattice or to slip or cleavage along crystal planes of rock-forming minerals. Minerals also playa role in health, e.g., radon exposure, dietary excess or deficiency of iodine, and even certain types of cancer. For example, an unusually high incidence of cancer cases in several remote Turkish villages has recently been traced to the presence of erionite in the soil. Mineral analysis is also used in forensic science to solve criminal cases.

These examples clearly demonstrate that not only is mineralogy relevant to many aspects of modem society, but also that numerous job opportunities for well-trained mineralogists do exist, beyond the traditional roles in academia, government laboratories, or mineral exploration. Therefore, concerned mineralogists should speak out more emphatically to college and public education administrators. Rather than marginalizing the geosciences, developing an improved knowledge base of our home planet, including mineralogy, is essential if our civilization is to survive.

Vivien Gornitz June 12, 2006