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JMU Geology Faculty Compile Book of Best Practices

So much to say and so little time to say it.

That's what inspired a pair of faculty members from JMU's department of geology and environmental science to compile and edit a new book on the best practices of geology field courses.

"Historically, field education and field experiences are a very strong part of any earth science or geoscience education. Yet at the same time, this particular part of teaching and learning has not been extensively documented and researched," said Eric Pyle, associate professor of geology and environmental science.

Pyle collaborated with fellow JMU faculty member Steven Whitmeyer, assistant professor of geology and environmental science, and Dr. David Mogk, professor of geology at Montana State University, to produce Field Geology Education: Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches.

Geological Society of America conferences, where speakers have just 15 minutes to make presentations during theme sessions, sparked the trio's decision to create the book, which features a compilation of papers from members of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union. The papers illustrate how different field geology programs across the country and internationally are enhancing educational experiences and effecting geology students.

"We had about three years worth of theme sessions that were devoted to field education," Whitmeyer said.

Added Pyle, "You have such a limited time to give your presentation and make your case, so you cannot possibly present all your information."

In 2007, Pyle, Whitmeyer and Mogk saw growing interest in field geology education and began working with the geologists who presented their research in field geology at the conferences.  Whitmeyer and Mogk put a call out asking for presenters to send proposals of their field education and research to be considered for the book.

"We talked to some of the geologists who have been presenting at these conferences and came up with the idea to put together a volume that is sort of state of the art that shows where we are on this topic and where we can go," Whitmeyer said. "Some of the field courses covered in this book have been around for almost a hundred years. Some of the perspective they can give on how this discipline has changed in the last hundred years is really valuable."

The book provides background information on field education techniques that work and how to implement them into course work. It also serves as an endorsement for field education programs.

"We wanted it to be an endorsement for field education so that various departments and administrators can say this is important in our science, and it is important that we keep a focus on it and keep funding it," Whitmeyer said.

"It covers everything that could be considered a traditional field course, but then leads up to some very high-tech tools for facilitating the learning as well as tracking the learning."—Steve Whitmeyer

The editors went through a variety of avenues to compile the presentations into papers that could be submitted to the GSA as a book. The GSA publishes about half a dozen research compilations each year.

"Part of it was not just what people submitted. We also brainstormed and decided we really needed some articles on certain topics. We also did a little bit of targeting people we knew that were involved in a specific area," Whitmeyer said.

After receiving 35 proposals, the editors selected 27 papers for the book. Each of the submissions was peer edited by two to three people. About 50 peer editors donated time to revise the book.  Each paper is a chapter. The book features five themed sections: historical perspectives, modern field equipment, original research in field education, field experiences for teachers and field education pedagogy and assessment.

"It covers everything that could be considered a traditional field course, but then leads up to some very high-tech tools for facilitating the learning as well as tracking the learning," Whitmeyer said.

Other JMU faculty and a pair of JMU students contributed articles to the book. Kristen St. John, associate professor of geology and environmental science, contributed a paper on an ocean-based educational experience. Christine May, assistant professor of biology, and L. Scott Eaton, associate professor of geology and environmental science, describe a hydrology-based field research experience. Students Jeremy Nicoletti and Michael Rivera contributed to a case study from the JMU Geology Field Course, held every summer in western Ireland.

"When you have something good like that it is natural to include it," Pyle said of the student contributions. "In some respects we are training and preparing future colleagues."

Pyle and Whitmeyer plan on using the book in their curriculum and course design. Whitmeyer also plans to use the book at a workshop he is co-organizing with Mogk this summer in Montana. At the workshop, 60 professional field geologists are meeting to explore current techniques and how to teach field geology. The book will be a recommended text. The book is available through The Geological Society of America bookstore. The cost is $56.00 for GSA members and $80.00 for non-members.

Published February 2010