Why does teaching matter? Perspective from teaching in Earth Sciences and Physical Geography

Safety first on GPG Spain trip: learning does not have to be overly serious, it can (should) be fun too!

In this post, Dr Mikael Attal, Senior Lecturer in Geomorphology at the School of GeoSciences, reflects on what is special about the Physical Geography and Earth Sciences disciplines… 

I enrolled in a Geology degree at the University of Nice in 1994 because I loved dinosaurs, volcanoes and minerals. I discovered the job of “lecturer” in first year and was instantly sold on it. We had some pretty famous professors there, and the idea that they could do top research AND share it with us students was particularly attractive. Professor Jean-François Stephan particularly marked me because he was able to stimulate curiosity, both in the classroom and in the field, like no other. I remember thinking: “I would love to be like Professor Stephan – I would love to get a chance to excite future generations of Earth scientists”. I have been lucky, and here I am.

And what a thrilling subject the Earth Sciences are! A friend of mine was asked once, in a derogative way: “You are a geologist, why is geology important?”. Earth Sciences are directly related to everything you interact with that is not textile, wood or rubber. Most energy is sourced from by-products of rocks (nuclear) or substances extracted from them (hydrocarbons). Infrastructures and means of transport are built of material that were rocks (cement, metal, glass). Most technological tools require elements that are mined from rocks (e.g., rare Earth elements). Plastics that overwhelmingly feature in our lives are by-products of hydrocarbons. And you need a good knowledge of rocks and surface processes (e.g., erosion) if you want to build lasting infrastructure or extract precious resources such as water (working with engineers, of course).

I teach in both Earth Sciences and Physical Geography. The students we teach in Earth Sciences and Physical Geography today will build infrastructure, look for resources, solve environmental problems and potentially govern us in the future. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to give them a decent training, a chance to get good jobs and the ability to excel at what they do! You will note that I am partly self-interested here, as I dream of a peaceful retirement surrounded by super-competent people. I believe the cards are currently in our hands.

Many threats are currently facing the Earth’s ecosystems and humans. These are scary times, but also times of opportunity for people who are made aware of these threats, are curious about the way Earth’s systems operate, and can think outside the box. I like to think that the training we give our students ideally places them in this context, and that our students can make a difference about this planet’s future trajectory, both individually and professionally, whatever their career path.

Students using Visual Geology for kinematic forward modelling in a teaching lab during a “Structural Analysis of Rocks and Regions” practical, Photo credit: PhD student Berit Schwichtenberg.

I love teaching in the School of GeoSciences in Edinburgh because most staff here seem committed to the success of all. I believe everyone has a role to play, whatever their academic performance or the career they choose to follow. We give our students fundamental training on key topics, but also equip them with skills (such as critical thinking, presentation skills, etc) that make them attractive to a wide range of employers. And our students don’t lack imagination! For example, most Earth Sciences students go into Earth Sciences-related jobs such as in mining, the energy sector, environmental consultancies, governmental organisations and further studies (master and PhD), but a significant number also follow aspirations they have developed from childhood or while studying, with some pursuing a career in retail, the entertainment industry or finances!

Students are more likely to engage if they are excited about what they are taught. I always highlight the relevance of the material or techniques they are exposed to, while also trying to stimulate their imagination and encourage them to follow their dreams. Our students are incredibly resourceful, and I like to think that the training they receive is at least partly responsible for that.

Few things make me happier than receiving an e-mail or a LinkedIn request from past students and discovering that they are pursuing a fulfilling career. Interestingly, this tends to happen fairly often: our students seem to be doing very well, and this is a source of immense satisfaction.

Mikael Attal

Dr Mikaël Attal is a Senior Lecturer in Geomorphology within the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, and member of the Land Surface Dynamics research group. He is Degree Programme Convenor of the Geology and Physical Geography programme and teaches on various Earth Science and Physical Geography courses across the school. He studies the interaction between surface and deep Earth processes (erosion and tectonics), how these processes shape landscapes, and the hazards associated with them (earthquakes, landslides, flooding). Find out more about him here .  You can also follow Mikael on Twitter: @mickymicky06s

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