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"Robustly Useful Ideas" as Geology Department Planning Tools

November 6, 2001
By Edward Buchwald, David Bice, Mary Savina, Shelby Boardman, Bereket Haileab, Clinton Cowan, and Timothy Vick

(Presented by Ed Buchwald on Monday, November 6, 2001, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston. The abstract is published on page A-191 of the program.)

A number of years ago I had a wonderful opportunity to be part of a study group of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The group was looking at the role of science education in the liberal arts. Members came from all kinds of colleges and universities and spanned the breadth of science. Included also were philosophers and historians of science and science education specialists. The final product of that study group was a book titled "The Liberal Art of Science." It covered many aspects of science education including issues of administration, financing, diversity, and inclusiveness.

During the deliberations of the study group a notion was developed that we named "robustly useful ideas." The concept is that if curricular choices are to be made, then we ought to teach the most robustly useful ideas. Of course curricular choices have to be made. Some things seem no longer important. In science the width and depth of our knowledge has grown immensely. How do we decide what it is that we ought to teach? I have been studying paleontology textbooks lately, and in so far as they are a compendium of what might be taught in introductory paleontology, the list of things to learn is immense. It is impossible to cover all that material. A good question is whether we ought to cover all that material. The AAAS study group thought that if we looked at the most useful ideas in science that would help us to figure out what ought to be taught. In geology what we teach should be concepts that are widespread and help us think about nature as well as other things in our lives.

Among those robustly useful ideas listed by the study group were such things as: equilibrium (static, dynamic, and disequilibrium), change (both organic and inorganic, including evolution and entropy), scale (properties of scale, fractal properties), discrete and non-discrete properties, emergent properties, causality, and so on. I am sure that each of you has your own favorite broad-sweeping idea.

My colleagues and I have been holding discussions at our regular weekly faculty meetings about the directions that science, in general, and geology, in particular, are taking. That is, we are trying to understand what new ways of thinking are being used by fellow earth scientists and what is it that they are thinking about? Furthermore, we are trying to figure out how we, as educators, need to respond to those changes. It is not like this is new. Good educators have always worried about whether their teaching was up-to-date and relevant to the future.

I suggested to my colleagues that we consider the AAAS study of science and liberal education and see how robustly useful ideas might work in our geology department. We think there are several good reasons to do this, but here are two: The first is coordination of effort, because we want a Carleton geology education to be cohesive and the result of a team effort by the faculty. (I should point out that not all faculties think it appropriate to work as a team. Some faculties treat each individual professor as a competing entrepreneur.) And second, there are so many things that might be taught and compete with each other for our attention that we need some efficacious test to help us pare down the list of possibilities into a list of realities. What we conclude is that in a large universe of ideas we should pick those which have the broadest usefulness in geology, the rest of science, and in our lives, in general, and which stand the test of time. That is, we should pick concepts that are "robustly useful."

When I despair I often say that the reason we teach science in America is to help students avoid superstition and shoddy goods. You may want to laugh or think I am quirky, but you know, there is a lot of truth to that idea. The best education in science should free our minds to be appropriately analytical about life. It should help us to think about data and their analysis. What do we know? How do we know it? What do we need to know?

So, in an effort to convince you that the test of robust usefulness is valuable, let me give some explicit examples from the things we have talked about in our departmental meetings.

Model making

Reasoning analogously and analytically about science is often done with models. We use stream tables, compression boxes, small flumes, thermodynamic experiments, numerical models and Stella models. Models are robustly useful because they occur throughout the geosciences and in other phases of our lives as well. They can be found in all the natural sciences, economics, art, psychology, and elsewhere. Models are a good thing to use in teaching geology and to be robustly useful they are a good thing to learn about in their own right. So, we have talked about trying to emphasize not only the utility of models in such things as hydrology and structural geology but also to stress the idea of model-making itself. How does the scaling factor work? How can we tell when properties of the model are extraneous? What properties of the model actually are extraneous? Or are they just misleading? In what way are models useful? How do models enlighten us about the full-scale world? We have decided that modeling is robustly useful and should occur frequently in our curriculum because it helps us to understand the earth. After all much of what we call knowledge is but an elaborate model of the earth. Think about illustrations of the Earth's interior. But modeling is also robustly useful in helping our students to think about other parts of their lives besides and in addition to geology. How can we think about climate change, population growth, or the economy, to name a few things? What is important to learn is how we make and evaluate models and how they enhance our ability to further investigate the world.

Scientific method

The application of scientific method is a robustly useful thing to do. Let me quickly define a popular method of science. Scientific method: ask a question of nature, devise a protocol to discover some answers, execute the protocol (measure, observe, experiment, etc.), evaluate the answers, and tell other people orally and in writing what you discovered. Refine your thoughts. In fact at each point there is likely to be looping back to refine your thoughts.

This is so robustly useful that we try to have every one of our field trips, whether an afternoon lab, weekend trip, week-long seminar, or extended experience, take place within that very context. While in the field we want to follow the steps of a scientific method of the sort that I have just outlined. Small groups of students (3 or 4) work on a problem (sometimes defined by the faculty, sometimes obvious to the students) determine a protocol, gather observations and measurements, come to tentative conclusions, and report to the larger group on what they figured out. The larger group helps refine the understanding often by suggesting new data or new ways to think about the problem. I always like to end by asking students what they would do if they had a modest amount of time and money to do more work on the problem as one might do for a term project or senior thesis. That is a good way to bring closure as well as to show the ongoing nature of knowledge and inquiry.

This is such a robustly useful way to think about the world that every class, every lab, every time we go to the field, we should be engaged in some aspect of scientific method as I defined it. I personally think that lecture/recitation classes are best when they emulate this kind of scientific thinking.

Historical contingency

One final example and then a list of things to consider: Because I teach paleobiology I think about the problem of historical contingency. I think it is a robustly useful idea. What I mean by it is that a set of conditions that we find in the present can only be adequately explained by knowing the historical steps that brought us to those present conditions. Ian McHarg, the great landscape architect and regional planner, said that you need to start regional planning by studying the historical geology of the area. He understood historical contingency in a robustly useful way!

Evolution (either physical or biological) only makes sense as a series of events, each dependent upon a preexisting set of conditions as well as the current environment. The evolution of eyes, limbs, and other body characteristics can only be understood as a sequence of events. The latest discoveries in the evolution of whales are an illustration. We now seem to have all the major steps enumerated in the story of how mammals entered the sea and became so thoroughly adapted to it. Whales out of the context of their evolutionary history don't make much sense at all. But in the context of historical contingency their story is fairly straightforward.

This is a robustly useful idea in the rest of our lives, too. We need to know history in order to understand the present. We need to understand history to understand race relations, sexism, international relations, our own government, even the way we go about educating our students. Many of the things we value, believe, and do are the result of our own history. They are historically contingent. The lesson for students is to understand how historical contingency is useful in elucidating these complex relationships.

Let me close by showing a partial list of robustly useful ideas in geology and suggest that you make up your own.

Some examples of robustly useful ideas in geology:

  • Scale (why does clay behave differently than sand)
  • Discrete versus non discrete (Bowen's reaction series, slope mapping)
  • Thresholds (climatic warming)
  • Taxonomy (not just biology, igneous rock names)
  • Systems analysis (river hydrology, climate, and humans)
  • Equilibrium (static, dynamic, and disequilibrium)
  • Change (both organic and inorganic, including evolution and entropy)
  • Emergent properties (Na + Cl is not the same as NaCl)
  • Causality and correlation

My colleagues and I contend that each of these concepts is useful throughout geology, other sciences, and in life.


Here is what I have tried to explain to you. My colleagues and I have decided that one of the criteria for making decisions about curriculum in the department and the syllabus of individual courses is to apply the standard of robust usefulness. An idea or concept is robustly useful if it has widespread application in geology and in life and it is a true principal which stands the test of time. If what we are teaching is not robustly useful, then we need to consider not teaching it.

Thank you for listening.