Published by the American Geological Institute
News and Trends in the Geosciences

 April 2000

For Students

Why Study Geology?

by Sarah Andrews

Let me tell you a few stories about learning to be a geologist. The first time I went back to my alma mater (Colorado College) to speak to the assembled students in the geology department was 1980, seven years after I graduated. I found the experience embarrassing. I had just finished a master’s degree and had gone to work for Amoco Production Co. to chase oil out of wind-deposited sandstones. In the years between getting my B.A. and going back for my M.S., I had worked at the USGS under a legend named Edwin D. McKee learning a few things about where wind-deposited sandstones come from. When I spoke to those students in 1980, I found myself facing a row of shiny-eyed students who thought I was somebody. I was the graduate. I was out there doing geology.

I found that row of shining eyes embarrassing in part because I had not been much of a student. I had coasted through school with a bunch of the other wackos of my era, those dissident free-thinking malcontents who didn’t give to the Alumni Fund, didn’t write home, and otherwise flaunted their educations as having been a waste of time. In the question and answer period after my talk, one of those awestruck students raised a trembling, terribly impressed hand and asked, “When did you first know you wanted to be a geologist?” I didn’t think more than half a second before answering: “About four years after I started working as one.”

Seventeen years later, I addressed the assembled geology students at Colorado College a second time and found the experience harrowing. In that time, I had moved on from getting hydrocarbons out of the ground to put them into gas tanks, to getting hydrocarbons out of the ground to clean them from drinking water. I had also by then written the first four of my forensic geology mystery novels. The years and the educational preparation I had been given had been good for me, but in those same years, it appeared that something had happened to screw up the college experience for the students. There were no shining eyes. There were no excited, “Gee, can I grow up to be like you?” questions. Shocked, I found myself rant-ing at them, raving at them, trying to incite them to think, and ask questions, and otherwise riot. They sat in rows in front of me, impassive, refusing to show me that I was making any kind of an impression on them at all.

Now I teach part-time at Sonoma State University, and while I have never seen a row of quite such wooden faces since, I have seen enough that I’ve continued mulling over what’s happening. Or not happening. And a few months ago, as we faculty sat around discussing what we might do to kind of shoot some vigor into the department, the youngest faculty member asked: “How long has it been since we reviewed the curriculum?” “Oh,” said the department chair, “about 20 years.”

Okay, before this begins to sound like mea culpa — us old geezers have fallen down on the job when it comes to making the geology curriculum relevant to your crazy, hazy, post dot-com existences — let me state this very clearly: I think the geology curriculum as it stands is more relevant than your student minds can possibly imagine. I think it’s one of the best curricula available to prepare your minds to deal with the ambiguities and life-as-we-know-it-threatening problems that face our post-dot-com, brand-new-millennium world — from global warming and population crush right down to where exactly you think you’re going to find enough gold to microplate all those electronic connections in your cell phones. Consider the gauntlet thrown.

So yes, I’d like to see some coursework added that would qualify you for specific jobs, but let’s also talk about preparing your mind for your career as a human being.

If you are drawn to study geology, odds are you are a spatial thinker and you have a bent for pragmatism and intuitive analysis. This means that you don’t need information dealt to you in any specific order, or even need it to be complete, in order to answer a question, and you’ll tend to arrive at your results through a creative, anxiety-ridden leap in understanding. But it also means that when you have arrived at that answer, you want it to work, and will instinctively distrust both the answer and at least some of the data that led you to it.

This orientation toward information and answers has profound importance to the kinds of questions I mentioned above. Just who do you want addressing the implications of global warming, someone who needs all the facts before they can begin? They don’t exist. Someone who smugly quits scrutinizing the data when they’ve turned some intellectual crank they were taught to turn and thinks they’ve got the answer? Hardly. Think of the geology curriculum, any geology curriculum, as being a training ground for developing a very special kind of mental muscle.

The kinds of information, practical puzzles and mentorship that are presented in geology curricula are exactly the kind of gymnasium your mind needs to become one that can help the human race live responsibly on this planet, or on any other we might one day presume to colonize. You need the instruction and mentorship precisely because your special kind of mind works subtly, must develop extraordinarily complex capacities and will take time, therefore, to evolve.

As a group, geologists often feel a latent sense of inadequacy. We measure ourselves against students and professionals who engage in other, more prescribed disciplines, and we buy into a false sense that we “should” come out of college already being that which our basic training can only encourage us to become.

Like me, you may need four years in college and four years in the profession before you even began to feel like you know what you’re doing, but that’s precisely because what you do develops as you gain experience. You may perceive the geological job market as being too small to support you and all the others in your college class. Or you may look longingly into computer science, or consider joining the service, or find allure in “just” raising kids.

Well, guess what? Studying geology is a great preparation for just about anything you might later do professionally. As we adjust to the challenges of our professional lives, we continue to learn to observe, make decisions and test them, and grow as thinkers, regardless of what title is printed on our business cards.

I’ve met computer scientists trained in geology who had a knack for “seeing” solutions that none of their engineering colleagues could imagine. Submariners have been actively recruited from the ranks of geologists because they can comfortably work four-dimensional problems regarding where they are related to certain other hard objects, without being able to see them.

And my children benefit from growing up in the care of people who have learned to apply careful observations and creative analysis to the job of making decisions and working with the repercussions of their impact on the real world. It’s hard to know all this from the beginning place of choosing a course of study in college. I didn’t. I just followed my spatial-thinking, intuitive, pragmatic nose.

Andrews is a full-time mother, part-time author of the Em Hansen forensic geology mystery novels, part-time instructor of geology, California Registered Geologist 5150, former civil servant, retrofitted petrobaroness, and sometime environmental geologist.

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