Grant will provide teaching aids for geosciences students

Thanks to a special grant from the provost’s office, students getting their first taste of the field of geosciences will emerge from the courses this year with a hands-on appreciation of science.Recently, the Technology Innovation Review Committee issued $300,000 in innovation grants to various faculty members throughout the university and four of the grants involve CELS faculty members. Technically the grants are offered through the initiative entitled “Innovative Approaches using Technology to Enhance the Student Experience at URI.”One of those grants, totaling $37,105 went to the Department of Geosciences for a project called “Building Long Term Science Literacy at URI Through Geosciences.”Professor Thomas Boving credits new faculty member Dawn Cardace, an assistant professor, for spearheading the proposal which also involves all other GEO faculty members and two from the Graduate School of Oceanography.

“I was reading the announcement seeking RFPs for innovative approaches using technology,” relates Cardace,” and I thought this would be an opportunity for geosciences because we touch so many students during the general education courses. We started talking about the technology and thought with more hands-on experience, the students would go out the door with a better sense of science literacy than when they walked in.”

Today’s students are quite savvy when it comes to technology and the thought was to ramp up the basic geosciences courses—some of which have no lab component—with technological approaches.

While one graduate student will be hired to work on web development by researching and collecting available resources relating to geosciences, most of the $37,105 funding will be used to purchase equipment that students can use in their exploration of subject matter.

For example a bank of iPads will be bought so students in the field can download pertinent information from the Internet and/or can use pre-loaded software that will be course content-related.

The most expensive single item to be purchased will be a device for cutting rocks into thin slices for viewing under technical microscopes, a prerequisite for understanding mineral and rock histories and evolution in the environment. Hand tools, a soil sampling auger, hand lenses, compasses, a microscope imaging camera and software make up the list of gear to be purchased, and additional materials required to build compelling demonstrations and student exploration projects in introductory courses are also planned.

Cardace and Boving think the use of more technology in the introductory courses could help convince students to take more geosciences courses or even explore geosciences as a career path.

“Some are taking the fundamental geosciences courses and then they move on,” says Boving.”We hope we can catch them with a bit of technology.”

This model of an aquifer which helps students understand how water flows in an aquifer is similar to many of the devices that will be purchased to help geosciences students understand geologic processes. In photo are (l-r) Kevin Boyd, a senior majoring in geologic oceanography and professors Thomas Boving and Dawn Cardace.

For students and majors who take more geosciences courses, the exposure to the technology will give them a skill set that is professionally relevant, adds Cardace, noting more technological experience will help students when it comes time to get a job.

Boving says the funding from the provost’s office is particularly welcome. “The budget runs the department but anything newly created relies on support like this, from the provost’s office.”

A few years ago a generous alumnus provided funds for 20 students to travel to Yellowstone to study the unique geological features there, recalls Boving. But that sort of opportunity is rare, especially in these economic times.

Geosciences is attracting more and more interest these days, says Cardace, adding that issues like water resources, the oil crisis and climate change have contributed to the rise in student applications. “Students are coming around and seeing geology is more than just rocks and minerals,” she says.

Cardace says the new initiative might even be leveraged into a proposal attractive to the National Science Foundation’s Program in Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“We are very grateful for this funding,” adds Cardace.

(Other principals involved in the “Science Literacy” project are David Fastovsky, Joseph Klinger, Elizabeth Laliberte, Brian Savage (all GEO), Steve Carey and Katharine Kelley (GSO), and Anne Veeger, CELS associate dean.)