Geology: Teaching about Big Data for old problems

Prof Dick Kroon and Earth Science students discussing a sequence of carbonate rocks at Kottaphi Hill (near Agrokipia, Cyprus). This section of rocks can be used to determine changes in sea level in the Mediterranean and uplift of the Troodos. Photo credit: G Bromiley

In this post, Dr Geoff Bromiley, a Reader in Experimental Geoscience within the School of GeoSciences, reflects on the current demands for the Geology curriculum, which involve preparing students to deal with large, complex datasets…

Something we hear lots about at the moment is Big Data. Over the past decade there has been an exponential increase in the volume and variety of data being collected and stored. We carry around mobile devices whose ability to record data is only equalled by their access to our personal information. We constantly interact with a plethora of devices which record our actions and decisions. On a planet where billions of people are constantly producing data there are huge opportunities for those able to process and analyse complex, multi-faceted datasets. Future graduates will have to be comfortable working with large, complex forms of data to make the most of these opportunities.  For those studying Geology, in the School of GeoSciences, are we preparing them well enough to do this? Do the learning outcomes from our courses match the skill sets and training required to succeed in this area?

I’ve been teaching Geology at Edinburgh for a little over 10 years. Geology, like other Earth Sciences, is a truly multidisciplinary, applied subject. We apply knowledge and skills from all branches of science to study the Earth. In other words, we look at something so hideously complicated that we have to use as many tools as we can (borrowed from everyone else) to work out what’s going on. It’s a subject with complex problems that require flexible thinking. It’s also not a subject you can teach by staying in the classroom. Material is introduced in lectures, labs and tutorials, but being a geologist means applying what you know to the world around you. That means getting outside.

Prof Alastair Robertson explaining to Earth Science students how rocks near Kritou Marottou (Western Cyprus) record the ancient collision of two geological terrains. These clay-rich rocks result in lush, green vegetation in this part of the island, but also result in occasional slope failure and land slip during periods of heavy rain. Photo credit: G Bromiley

Nature is a wonderful teaching space, and one which makes you appreciate how complex the world around us is. Geologists study nature by learning how to read the landscape. They use patterns in where rocks and sediments are found to study processes which have shaped the Earth through time. They might start by studying the surface of a small area of the Earth and constructing a geological map. The pattern of rocks across this map, and various other bits of data they have collected, can then be used to construct a model of the interior in this region. This is the part of the Earth that cannot be directly observed, so they have to extrapolate a lot to do this. Information from bore holes allows them to test their model, but to further refine it they will use data from various geophysical techniques. Satellite data might allow an accurate computer-generated model of the surface to be constructed, demonstrating how processes like erosion continue to shape the landscape.

Earth Science students walking across Kottaphi Hill (near Agrokipia, Cyprus) to view a landslipped bolder. This bolder contains ancient coral reef and various fossils, which students use to reconstruct the environment in which rocks were formed. Photo credit: G Bromiley

A plethora of laboratory techniques can then be used to provide clues on the ancient processes which formed the area. Ratios of radioactive elements in certain minerals give the ages of different rocks, from thousands to billions of years old. Careful examination of each rock with a microscope provides insight into how they formed, whether in a tropical lagoon, ancient river delta, the deep roots of a large mountain range, or by melting hundreds of kilometres below the surface. Chemical composition of the rocks will allow these processes to be further constrained, often in minute detail. Likely, each rock records a complex series of processes occurring over millions of years. Perhaps there is evidence for ancient life preserved in the rocks, further hinting at environments under which they formed.

The geologist must integrate all of this information to construct a geological model of the area. Perhaps they will then use computer simulations to further explore some of the processes which have occurred through time. However, this is just the start. All of this data can then be integrated into larger geological models of the Earth. Each dataset can be re-used, re-analysed, re-processed. The geologist must understand geological, geographical, physical, chemical and biological datasets. They must be able to think on length scales from atoms to planets, and timescales from seasons to billions of years.

Earth Science students discussing and sketching a rock face near Khirokhitia Village, Cyprus. This cliff section records a series of river channels formed as the Troodos Massif emerged above sea-level. Presence of microfossils within the rocks allow the timing of uplift of the Troodos to be determined. Photo credit: G Bromiley

They will likely be dependent on the expertise of those around them. But they must be able to assess complex data sets, integrate them, process them and provide insight. This skill is, arguably, the single most important learning outcome from our Geology degree. After all, when it comes to big data, there’s not much bigger than the world around us.

Big Data is big news at the moment. It’s an exciting development, but the challenges are not entirely new or unfamiliar. Our Geology graduates are trained to fully appreciate issues involved in dealing with large, complex datasets. It’s what the subject is all about and we can, rightly, emphasise this. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t constantly review what we teach, and adapt programmes to meet the changing needs of our students. However, it is beneficial to reflect on what the wider learning outcomes of our courses and programmes are. After all, the full benefits of what we teach are not always immediately apparent, even to us, and sometimes they also depend on the world which graduates are entering.

Geoff Bromiley

Dr Geoff Bromiley is a Reader in Experimental Geoscience within the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, and member of the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions. He is Degree Programme Convenor of the Geology programme and Earth Science Co-ordinator, and teaches on various Earth Science courses across the School of GeoSciences. His research involves studying the processes which occur under the extreme conditions of planetary deep interiors.

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