Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A good article on community colleges...

Many times, pundits and politicians betray a complete lack of understanding of community colleges when writing about educational policy.  Why is this important?  Because there are well over 1,000 two-year accredited colleges in the U.S. and 44% of all undergraduates are in a community college!

Here are a great couple of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Rob Jenkins at Georgia Perimeter College on "The Good that Community Colleges Do":

   Part I
   Part II

Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Magical Online Courses in Hawaii

Evidently, online courses at the University of Hawai'i (UH) are magically self-teaching - no faculty required!

Meet the new interim president of UH - David Lassner.  Formerly Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at UH, he's described as tech-savvy (obviously) and seems to be a nice enough guy (he loves hiking which is always a plus in my book).

In a recent fluff-piece profile on Hawaiian TV (video here), he's quoted as saying the following about building on the 1,000 online courses already offered at UH (starting around 1:20):

"It's how, um, one of the ways we can take on more students without having to increase our faculty at a linear pace." 

So who's developing and teaching these courses, Dr. Lassner, elves?

I've been teaching several online courses each academic year for well over a decade now, all developed from scratch.  I think I do a good job.  The courses are well-designed and a hell of a lot of work to teach (I would argue that they are MORE work to teach than face-to-face courses if you're doing it right).  At our community college, enrollment in online course sections is capped at 19 students - comparable to our smaller classroom sizes (we don't have many huge lecture hall style classes at our institution).  I maintain a presence in my online courses and I'm able to do so because each section has a manageable number of students.  Even with striving to make the online course as good as a face-to-face section, I know it's inferior (even though I teach some courses online, because I have to, you simply can't reproduce the classroom experience in the online environment).

Increasing the number of online course sections without increasing faculty means one of two things - outsourcing your online courses to for-profit organizations (which, in my opinion, are always far more interested in profit than in academic standards) or having massively-open online courses (MOOCs) which have a documented abysmal single-digit completion rate (since they're simply the hi-tech equivalent of 1950s style correspondence courses - just buy a textbook and learn calculus if you can teach yourself this way!).

If I could, I would task Dr. Lassner with one exercise.  Walk around the UH campus and find some seniors who've taken both online and face-to-face courses.  Ask them about the best course they ever took - the one that influenced them the most.  Ask them if it was a face-to-face course with an energetic, engaging professor or if it was an online course.

Administrators, especially those without much classroom experience, often naively view online courses as panaceas for declining budgets.  They're not - unless you're willing to compromise academic quality and no one wants to do that, right?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Recognizing rocks

One of the skills that geology students learn in the field is how to recognize different rock formations.  Technically, "formations" are simply mappable units of rock.  In other words, a rock layer that has distinctive properties which allow it to be recognized and correlated over a region.  Formations are assigned formal names generally based on their location and lithology (rock type).

Some examples of formations include the Kaibab Limestone, Coconino Sandstone, and Bright Angel Shale in the Grand Canyon or the Manlius Limestone, Binnewater Sandstone, and Mount Marion Shale right here in Ulster County.  While most people just see them as gray rocks on the side of the road, there are over a dozen different limestone formations here in the Mid-Hudson Valley and locally-trained geologists (if they have any field experience) can recognize them on sight because they each have distinctive bedding, grain size, color, fossils, etc.

Contact (at quarter) between two different limestone formations

A few days ago I was with my family near the top of a well-known waterfall in the Catskills - Kaaterskill Falls.  A favorite subject of Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole, it's protected State land today and a beautiful place to visit.

Kaaterskill Falls (1826) by Thomas Cole

We sat on the top of the falls for a bit and then wandered upstream (it's called Spruce Creek and is a tributary of Kaaterskill Creek further downstream).

My wife, posing in the middle of Spruce Creek above Kaaterskill Falls

As my wife and kid jumped and balanced their ways across the rocky stream, I noticed something interesting. A beautifully-sculpted, fist-sized cobble.

Isn't it pretty?  There's a crack running completely around the middle but it's well-cemented enough so that it doesn't come apart.  The neat thing about being a geologist is that I can appreciate this rock for more than only its natural beauty.  I immediately recognized it as a piece of the Manlius Limestone Formation.

Here's a close-up of the Manlius Limestone at a roadside outcrop on Route 199 in Kingston, NY.

It's characterized by being a light-gray, fine-grained (carbonate mud) limestone with brown clay-rich layers.  The cobble from Kaaterskill Creek is weathered piece of this limestone.

OK, so it's a piece of Manlius Limestone, so what?  Well it was found up in the Catskills at an elevation of around 2,000 feet.  The Manlius Limestone is not found up in the Catskills, it's found at lower elevations, down around 200 feet above sea level, near the Hudson River to the east.  It's present at Kaaterskill Falls, but 1,800 feet below the surface and nowhere exposed at the surface.

So, where did this weathered stream cobble come from?  Unless somewhat physically carried it up into the mountains and dumped it in the stream (unlikely), it had to have been carried here by glaciers - it's a glacial erratic.  Further north, west of Albany, the Manlius Limestone is well exposed along the cliffs at Thacher State Park.

Manlius Limestone at Thacher State Park

During the last ice age, glaciers picked up a piece of this rock, carried it as far south as the area west of Catskill, and then dumped it at the top of the mountains when the glaciers melted starting around 12,000 years ago.  At some point, this rock found its way into Spruce Creek where it tumbled and weathered into its present shape.  A few days ago, it caught the eye of a wandering geologist.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


The latest issue of GSA Today (June 2014), a monthly publication of the Geological Society of America, has an interesting paper titled "An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record" by Dr. Patricia Corcoran, et al.

Let me back up a minute first to explain the significance of this.  Geologists divide the four and a half billion years of time since the origin of the Earth into Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs of the geologic time scale.  We are currently in the Phanerozoic Eon, Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period, and Holocene Epoch.

Recently, a number of scientists have proposed the idea that we're in a new Epoch - the Anthropocene (from anthropos which means "man" or "human" in Greek).  While not yet an official part of the geologic time scale, it is getting wide usage with people arguing about how to precisely define the start of such an Epoch.  All rational people, however, agree that humans have made an impact on our global environment that we can directly measure (one that will be preserved in the geologic record for future generations - if they still exist - to measure as well).

There is some disagreement, though, as to where to start the Anthropocene Epoch.  Some suggest measurable changes in soil composition which have occurred over the past few thousand years due to the advent of large-scale agricultural practices by human societies.  Others advocate a more recent date due to measurable changes from the Industrial Revolution (pollutants).  Yet others argue that it should start in the 1950s with the advent of plastics and presence of trace isotopes from atomic bomb testing.

Back to the paper - Corcoran and her colleagues noted the formation of what they called plastiglomerates forming on the Big Island of Hawaii.  While traditional conglomerates are sedimentary rocks formed by pebbles and sand chemically cemented together (lithified), plastiglomerates are described as "... an indurated multi-composite material made hard by agglutination of rock and molten plastic."  The molten plastic was not derived from hot lava flows, as one might suspect from the location, but rather from simple burning of plastic waste in campfires.

Corcoran, et al. 2014 GSA Today

Anthropogenically-derived rocks such as these plastiglomerates will survive in the geologic record recording the Anthropocene Epoch and the unfortunate human habit of shitting in our own nest.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chair no more...

So for several years now, I've worked as both a professor and as a department chair of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) department at the community college where I've taught for the past 15 years now.  It involved the oversight of a dozen full-time and several dozen adjunct faculty, a couple of staff members, science labs, a relatively large budget, and lots of administrivia.

For a myriad of personal and professional reason, I decided this semester to go back to teaching full-time and leave the administrative bullshit to someone else effective June.  Well, it's now June.  I'm free of responsibility for a few weeks for the first time in years.  Will I relax in the sun?  Sleep in every day?  Get lots of yard work done?

No, most likely I'll spend some time in the field looking at local geology, hiking on nice days, revising my physical geology course running in the fall on rainy days (something I haven't had time to do for a few years), and writing (I have ideas for numerous books but have procrastinated writing for years).  I'm sure I'll be posting more on this blog as well.  What I won't be doing is dealing with other people's problems at work (the worst part of a chairperson's job!).