GeoLog

Education

GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

In this month’s edition of GeoEd, Sam Illingworth, former ECS PC representative and Lecturer of Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, talks about a new framework introduced by the UK government to measure the quality of teaching at higher education institutions. Although Sam explores the issue from a UK perspective, there is no doubt cross over within the European realm. Also, this post is a great opportunity to start a discussion, how is the quality of teaching across European Universities measured? We’d love to hear from you if you have a view on the newly proposed framework or if you can tell us more about how teaching excellence is measured in your country.

The UK government recently announced that a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would be introduced to UK universities. At the moment, the exact form of what this will look like is speculative, but it is expected that it will potentially use a set of “outcome-focussed” metrics to form the basis of financial incentives to improve university teaching. For example, those universities that perform well in TEF might be allowed to charge more than the current tuition fee cap of £9,000 per annum.

Whilst primary and secondary schools in the UK are used to having the quality of their teaching assessed via inspections from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), there has been something of a mixed reaction amongst UK academics as to whether or not the TEF is actually needed.

Aside from the fact that TEF will probably be a very costly exercise (some estimates of REF, the research equivalent of TEF were put at being in excess of £1 billion), it is difficult to imagine how you would accurately measure teaching excellence in universities, and if indeed there is any need to do so. After all, the 2015 UK National Student Survey reported that the majority of students are ‘satisfied’ with their university course, despite the £9,000 tuition fees.

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

However, would a TEF really be such a bad idea? Aside from the fact that it might be used as a further tool to ensure that the richest and most well attended universities keep on getting richer and more over subscribed, I think that there are a number of potential benefits to such a framework:

  1. It will encourage more peer-assessment amongst lecturers. Whilst previous attempts to enforce this have been a little heavy handed, learning from one another is an excellent way to develop your craft as a teacher.
  2. It will help to strengthen the ‘teaching track’ in academia as a route that is at least on a par with the more traditional ‘research track’. This in turn should also help to pave the way for more distinctive career paths. Just because you are a world-class researcher does not mean that you are a world-class teacher, but nor should you be punished / penalised for this if research is your main reason for employment and visa versa.
  3. It will help to place greater value on the importance of good teaching for retention rates etc. Given the amount of money that universities bring in from tuition fees, it is amazing that a greater value is not already placed on lecturers that excel in the role of teachers.
  4. It should provide a more useful comparison for students when applying to universities than the REF tables. After all, whilst as a student you want to attend a university with a good research reputation, it is far more important that you attend one that excels at teaching.

Obviously, in the field of the geosciences, there will be additional obstacles that must be overcome, for example how will lecturers be assessed on their ability to teach fieldwork skills, or to run successful residential trips? However, providing that the TEF is constructed following consultation with practicing lecturers and university administrators, these could all potentially be accounted for.

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Whilst many may see TEF as a further box-ticking or hurdle-jumping exercise, if it is done correctly it offers university’s a fantastic opportunity to ensure that all of their students are being taught be lecturers who are good at lecturing, and who actually want to be there. The good lecturers have nothing to worry about (apart from potential promotion), those wanting to learn will have a framework to work towards, and those that don’t care about the quality of their delivery are probably better off out of the system anyway.

By Sam Illingworth, Science Communication Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

GeoEd: EGU General Assembly and GIFT 2015

GeoEd: EGU General Assembly and GIFT 2015

The most recent issue (Winter/Spring 2015) of the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter includes a piece, by Earth Science Correspondent, Michael J. Passow, on the 2015 General Assembly and the GIFT (Geosciences Information For Teachers) Workshop. Passow gives an account of this year’s workshop, on the topic of mineral resources, and outlines the participating teacher’s experience.

Each spring, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly brings geoscientists from all over the world to Vienna for a conference covering all disciplines of the Earth, planetary and space sciences. EGU 2015, convening 12-17 April, provided a forum where scientists, especially early career researchers, could present their work and discuss their ideas with experts in all fields of geoscience. Concurrently, nearly 80 educators from around the world gathered for the 11th Geophysical Information for Teachers (GIFT) workshop of the EGU. They included, for the first time, your correspondent.

This year’s GIFT workshop welcomed 76 teachers from 21 different countries. GIFT 2015 centered on the theme “Mineral Resources.” Driving this selection was growing awareness that expansion of the world population from 6 to 9.6 billion in 2050 and rapid industrialization of highly populated countries, combined with an overall higher standard of living, are expected to intensify global competition for natural resources and place additional pressure on the environment, both terrestrial and marine. We recognize that mineral reserves are being depleted, and concerns are growing about access to new raw materials, especially basic and strategic minerals. Rise in the price of several essential metals, for example copper, has prompted some industrialized countries to initiate concerted activities to ensure access to strategic minerals.

Participants of the GIFT workshop at the 2015 General Assembly. Credit: Michael J. Passow, Earth Science Correspondent for the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter.

Participants of the GIFT workshop at the 2015 General Assembly. Credit: Michael J. Passow, Earth Science Correspondent for the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter.

Europe has recently begun initiatives that attempt to solve the issue. Europe depends greatly on imports for many materials needed for construction and heavy and high-tech industries. Recycling, resource efficiency, and searching for alternative materials are essential, but probably not sufficient to meet demands. There is a need to find new primary deposits. But politicians and business leaders are concerned because deposits, when identified, occur in areas difficult to access, barring modern exploration technology, and requiring huge investment costs. Exploration requires substantial capital, rare expertise, and leading edge technologies in order to secure the lowest extraction costs. GIFT 2015 matched teachers with experts of exploration, extraction, policy making in the field of future mineral resources, including the deep-sea frontier.

The EGU welcomed the teachers and started to bond them with a special guided visit to the Vienna Museum of Natural Sciences on Sunday, 12 April. They then joined all conference participants in the “Ice Breaker Party” at the Austria Center, where the scientific programs took place. Find out more information about EGU 2015 here.

Many of the participating teachers also contributed to the program through hands-on workshops, poster sessions, and other activities. Your correspondent presented in one of the hands-on workshop sessions classroom-based activities about minerals. Participants made models of the silicon-oxygen tetrahedron and other molecules using raisins and toothpicks. They shared strategies to teach important minerals properties, such as cleavage and magnetism, in their countries. An anticipated highlight was distributing samples of fluorescent minerals donated by the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, NJ, and watching them glow under ultraviolet energy.

Hands-on workshops at the GIFT workshop during the 2015 conference. Credit: Michael J. Passow, Earth Science Correspondent for the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter.

Hands-on workshops at the GIFT workshop during the 2015 conference. Credit: Michael J. Passow, Earth Science Correspondent for the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter.

Many of the teachers received partial conference expenses through professional societies and other sources. When participants return to their home countries, they are expected to complete an evaluation form to assess this year’s program and provide guidance for next year’s. Each will also make presentations about their EGU experience to teaching colleagues, submit reports and photographs about how GIFT information and resources have been used, and, contribute articles about the GIFT workshop to professional publications aimed at geosciences teachers.

You can learn about past GIFT workshops through the EGU website. Beginning in 2009, EGU has created web-TV presentations, which may be freely downloaded and used in classrooms. To expand the impact and outreach of the programs, the EGU Committee on Education began in 2012 a series of GIFT Distinguished Lectures in several European countries. Leading scientists who have participated as speakers in GIFT workshops during the EGU General Assemblies are supported to provide organized educational event for high school science teachers.

Similar GIFT Workshops are offered at the annual American Geoscience Union meetings held each fall in San Francisco. These are organized by the National Earth Science Teachers Association and the AGU Education Program. Resources from the previous four AGU GIFT workshops are available online.

by Michael J. Passow, Earth Science Correspondent

This article originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education.

For an electronic subscription to the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter please e-mail a request to JLRoeder@aol.com. You can also access the Newlsetter via the website of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The GIFT Workshops are organised by the EGU’s Committee on Education. You can learn more about the GIFT programme and the other educational activities fostered by the Committee on the EGU website.

GeoEd: Social Communications

GeoEd: Social Communications

We all know that social media is an excellent way in which we can communicate our research (and indeed our rants, dreams, and favourite cat pictures) to the general public, but can we also use it to communicate our research in the classroom? From kindergarten to higher education, social media can be a fantastic learning tool, which can help to open up digital windows into the world of geosciences.

Social media is a rather large umbrella; for anyone doubting this, check out the wonderful A-Z of Social Media for Academia by Professor Andy Miah from the University of Salford. In utilising social media for your teaching practices, it is important that you choose the platform with which you feel the most comfortable, and which you feel will be of greatest benefit to both you and your students. For the rest of this article we are going to focus mainly on: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Periscope, but obviously many more platforms are available.

Creating a Facebook group for a specific class or topic can be an excellent way to promote learning and interactivity outside of the classroom. Wang et al. (2012) found that many of the fundamental functions of a learning management system could be easily implemented into a Facebook group, and that encouraging students to use Facebook as a learning tool presents the teacher with the flexibility to engage with students at times that are convenient for them. This in turn can lead to the students feeling more inclusive, and can help to foster a more collegial atmosphere, both amongst the students and between the students and the teacher (Marovich et al., 2010). If using Facebook in this manner, it is important that the students are aware and comfortable with the security settings that are being used. It is also an idea to give several of them administrative rights, as this promotes ownership, and helps the students to self-moderate, which will further encourage the students to learn together, away from their traditional learning environments.

Twitter is a fast, easy method for making announcements, solving student issues, and performing course-related administrative duties (Rinaldo et al., 2011). Using a Twitter Wall, such as Tweetchat, in combination with a designated hashtag can be a great way to promote discussions in class, and can help to encourage those students that would otherwise be too shy or awkward to ask questions. By using a hashtag, it is also possible for the teacher to return to any questions or issues that they may have missed during the session at a later date, and they can also help to inform the content and delivery to future sessions. Using hashtags also allows you curate the conversation using Storify or Curator for a later date, as outlined in this blog post. Twitter is also an excellent way to help teach students about how to network efficiently (Sacks and Graves, 2012), a vital skill in any future career path, and one that will stand them in good stead for the academic conferences of their futures. For those that are interested, this post by the UK Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) talks further about how social media can be used to promote interaction and inclusivity, and how it is being done across UK HE institutions.

Social media can help bring geosciences into the classroom. Credit: Steveadcuk (distributed via Wikimedia Commons).

Social media can help bring geosciences into the classroom. Credit: Steveadcuk (distributed via Wikimedia Commons).

Skype and Periscope are excellent platforms for bringing geoscience and geoscientists into the classroom. By setting up a Skype chat with a geoscientist in an exotic location, students can get a feel for what it is like to be a geoscientist in the field; they are also presented with the opportunity to chat to real geoscientists about what it is that they do, and why it is that they do it. This is also an extremely cost-effective (in terms of both time and money) method to communicate with geoscientists from across the globe. Periscope brings with it the opportunity for genuine two-way communication in a versatile and flexible manner. If you are a university lecturer then why not set up a live feed when you are out in the field, your students could then watch as you climb a volcano/identify rock types/ take chamber measurements of gases, whilst asking you questions that you can respond to in real time, effectively bringing them with you on your own personal learning experience. You could also encourage your students to do the same, allowing them to share their geoscientific wanderings with the rest of their class.

These are just some suggestions for how a number of social media platforms might be used to enhance the learning experience. The possibilities really are as limitless as your imagination. However, it is important to realise that social media, in all of its many guises is effectively just a set of (admittedly very cool) tools, and that without the required content and competency to complement these, all that is left is a set of ineffectual instruments and a very confused and or uninterested classroom.

By Sam Illingworth,  Lecturer in Science Communication, Manchester Metropolitan University.

References
Marovich, M., Stanaityte, J. & Wankel, C.: Cutting-edge social media approaches to business education: teaching with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and blogs, IAP, 2010.

Rinaldo, S. B., Tapp, S. & Laveriel, D. A.: Learning by tweeting: Using Twitter as a pedagogical tool. Journal of Marketing Education, 0273475311410852, 2011.

Sacks, M. A. & Graves, N.: How Many “Friends” Do You Need? Teaching Students How to Network Using Social Media. Business Communication Quarterly, 75, 80-88, 2012.

Wang, Q., Woo, H. L., Quek, C. L. et al:. Using the Facebook group as a learning management system: An exploratory study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 428-438, 2012

Film review: Revolution

Film review: Revolution

It’s not every day you are asked to review a film, and since it’s a documentary that encompasses a few of EGU’s sciences (such as climate sciences, biogeosciences, and energy, resources and the environment), I couldn’t say no. I’ll start by giving it a rating, 3.5/5 stars, though I would probably give it more if I were part of the film’s main target audience.

Revolution, by biologist-photographer turned filmmaker-conservationist Rob Stewart, is about some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It aims to educate the audience about ocean acidification, climate change, overfishing and deforestation, alerting them to how these issues can impact our planet and, in turn, humanity. But it’s also about much more than that.

The film starts with Stewart telling his own story, revealing how his personal experiences lead him to make his first documentary, Sharkwater, and how researching and promoting that film made him want to tell the broader story of Revolution. This makes for good story telling, and it’s an interesting and candid introduction (Stewart says at one point that he had no idea how to make a movie before Sharkwater). But it seems a tad overly dramatic at times and not always scientific in its claims. For example, to illustrate how humans, responsible for many environmental problems, can also be part of their solution, Stewart tells a crowd in Hong Kong that the “holes in the ozone layer are almost a figment of our imagination now”, which is not exactly true. According to a 2014 NASA release, the ozone hole is still roughly the size of North America, though it has been shrinking over the past couple of decades. I should point out, however, that while there are some minor scientific inaccuracies here and there in the film (and a glaring typo in a sentence where CO2 appears incorrectly written as CO2) the majority of the facts and figures cited in the movie do roughly seem to be accurate, even if rather dramatic and seemingly exaggerated at first.

The movie becomes more exciting (though, at times, depressing too) when Stewart changes the focus from his story to the story of how life evolved on Earth, and what its future might look like. The backdrop is beautiful footage, worthy of a BBC wildlife programme. Stewart starts where life itself started, underwater, and the images showing a diversity of corals and colourful fish (and the cute pigmy sea horse) are breath-taking and work well in illustrating his points. For example, as the colourful imagery gives place to shades of grey, Stewart describes and shows how corals have been affected by ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That's an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That’s an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

If the footage, both underwater and on land, makes for a stunning background, the interviews with various scientific experts bring home the film’s key messages. To me, they are the strongest aspect of Revolution. Stewart talks to credible researchers who are able to communicate their, often complex, science in clear language. Some of the readers of this blog may be able to relate to scientists Charlie Veron and Katharina Fabricius, whose field work is shown in the film, while viewers less familiar with the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs will likely be moved by the dramatic words of these researchers.

What the scientists tell us will happen if humans continue in the business-as-usual path is indeed gloomy: deforestation increasing, fisheries collapsing, greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures on the rise at unprecedented rates, species going extinct en masse… the list goes on. The issues of deforestation and mass extinction are addressed when Stewart travels to Madagascar: the island’s tropical dry forests are home to unique animals and plants, many of which have seen their habitats destroyed by the burning of trees to make room for pastures and crops. Humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is illustrated when Stewart talks about the Alberta tar sands, and how resource intensive and polluting it is to extract oil from them. A key message of the film is again illustrated here by one of the experts interviewed. Hans Joachim (‘John’) Schellnhuber, a scientific advisor to the German Government and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains how stopping the Canadian tar sands project “is one of the decisive battles in the war against global warming”.

Indeed, Stewart sets out not only to inform people about the environmental issues faced by humanity, but also to encourage the audience to act on them: “Revolution is not just about the environment – it’s a film about hope and inspiration.” As such, Stewart balances out this negative outlook with examples of people who are standing up for climate justice and fighting for an end to fossil-fuel burning (and, sometimes, with clips of flamboyant cuttlefish and jumping lemurs!). Although it may not seem like it halfway through the film, the overall message is positive.

This is most evident when Stewart talks to young people, particularly those who travelled to Cancun, Mexico for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2010 (COP16). It is heartening to find out how committed and courageous some young people are in fighting for our future, their future, and in wanting to make the Earth a better place by changing human behaviour. This fighting spirit is best encapsulated in a speech by Mirna Haider, from the COP16 Lebanon Youth Delegation, which is particularly bold and moving, if impatient: “You have been negotiating all my life, you cannot tell me you need more time.”

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Young people are those who may have the most to benefit from watching this film, and I think are the primary target audience of Revolution (there’s even an accompanying Educator’s guide with pre- and post-viewing resources and classroom activities teachers and parents might find useful). It inspires them towards (peaceful) revolution against corporations who profit from burning fossil fuels and from destroying natural resources, and against governments who take no action to stop them. It is a shame the film doesn’t address other ways in which individuals could help fight climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification, such as divesting from fossil fuels or eating less meat. But perhaps that’s something that resonates better with older people. Children and teenagers tend to be more optimistic about their power to save the Planet through revolution, and this film is sure to inspire them to act on the most pressing environmental problems the Earth faces.

Revolution premiered at festivals in 2012/2013, but has only been widely released earlier this year. You can watch the film online on the Revolution website, or through the platforms indicated there (sadly, it’s not free, but you can either rent it or buy it for only a few dollars, so it’s certainly affordable!).

 

By Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

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