Alan Morgan on Experiential Learning – Trevor Holmes

In our September 2010 CTE Newsletter, I had the privilege of interviewing 3M Teaching Fellow A.V. Morgan, lately retired from Earth Sciences, about his long career at Waterloo. For reasons of space, one of the questions and answers was not included; it is reproduced below. Alan brings experience into the classroom, and wherever possible, takes students out to the experiences…
TH: Clearly, you have had a rich and deep experience in your discipline and inspiring others to understand the world around us, in a teaching practice that extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your learners have ranged from very young to very old, but I think one thing that unites us is your passion for seeing what is in front of us — I mean really seeing, not just looking at. In this context, can you talk a little bit about the importance you have put over the past 40 years on actually visiting spaces and places and events, and bringing as much of them back as possible (in the form of film, photographs, and stories etc.)?

AVM: I take a philosophical outlook on life. As a geologist I am particularly interested in Planet Earth; the one we all live on, the one that is over-exploited through the human follies of overpopulation and greed. As I point out to my students this world has been around for a long time. It has seen major catastrophes; asteroid impacts; huge volcanic outbursts, continents rifting and rejoining, ocean fluctuations and atmospheric changes that make our worries about carbon dioxide build-up look very trivial. Planet Earth will survive us without any problem, but humanity may not survive humanity, since we live on a world with very finite resources and a recycling and stabilization time that is almost incomprehensible to most people.

What I attempt to do in my lectures is to bring home aspects of this amazing world, especially from a geological perspective. Geology is a subject that is almost totally ignored or taken for granted by most humans. However, it should be taught in schools far more than it is, and it certainly should be a mandatory subject for all university students. Earth is facing burgeoning population growth, higher expectations about material goodies, deteriorating habitats and incredible future problems with CO2 buildup, more extreme weather, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and declining resources from water to rare earth elements, and all of these could very easily lead to human conflict.

I have spent the last 20 years concentrating on talks to the public at large, from school groups to seniors, but with most of my effort aimed at university students. In my lectures I try to take them to places that illustrate the various concepts that are needed to understand the Earth Sciences. I suppose my concerns about public awareness of science started back in 1973 with a documentary on how a small Icelandic town was almost destroyed by a tiny volcano that popped up on the eastern part of the island of Heimaey. I made a documentary film “The Heimaey Eruption” for the Nature of Things and PBS. As a teaching tool it was a great success, and very popular with the public, although it cost me a year in the promotion and tenure stream since it was not considered as “research”! (In reality the film “educated”, conservatively, more than 10 million viewers, whilst over 100 of my research papers in the relatively esoteric field of paleo-entomology and climate change have just reached a very small fraction of these numbers). I have revisited Heimaey many times, most recently in July, 2010, when the fumaroles on top of the volcano were still hot enough to cause paper to ignite!

These experiences are great to share with students and particularly for those who are visual learners. Taking them (virtually) to the stone stripes of the Falkland Islands, described as “stone streams” by Charles Darwin when he visited the islands in 1833 and 1834, or looking at the coral reefs of the Galapagos or central Pacific that he described makes things that much more alive. A little over a year ago my wife and I were in Constitucion exactly one year to the day before the 8.8 magnitude earthquake moved the town almost 4 metres toward the Pacific. The epicenter of this earthquake was less than 200 kilometres from Concepcion where Darwin witnessed the tsunami destruction from the big earthquake of February 20th, 1835. And of course beside the illustrative geology there is always spectacular scenery that can keep some jaded students awake!

Just a few weeks ago I was back in Iceland, leading a group of geologists and others from the United States. I think the experience of handling the frothed, golden pumice from the Askja eruption of 1875 made them realize just why this eruption killed an estimated 10,000 people in Iceland and forced the emigration to the Icelandic settlements in Manitoba and Minnesota. Later in the trip we were able to stand on the lower slopes of Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that closed down air travel in Europe in April). We were able to feel and smell the ash and I tried to explain just why this finely powdered glass is so dangerous in the combustion chambers of jet aircraft (and also why it is a desired ingredient in underwater setting cements)!

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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