Cherry Award Lecture: Geoscience education matters

  • Award finalistHeather Macdonald is a nationally-known figure in geoscience education circles. She is a finalist for Baylor University's Robert Foster Cherry Award , which recognizes excellence in teaching.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Award finalist

"Why do we study geosciences?” Heather Macdonald asked her audience at the Robert Foster Cherry Lecture. She then ran down a list of timely geoscience topics, including hurricanes, earthquakes, climate change, volcanoes and petroleum and other natural resources.

“It’s a challenge to study these things,” she said, “these are complex systems, such as economic systems and ecosystems. There are many interrelated variables that are strongly related to each other.”

In addition to being a geoscientist, she also noted that she also a teacher of geoscientists. Macdonald is Chancellor Professor of Geology at William & Mary. She is one of three finalists for the Robert Foster Cherry Award, given every two years by Baylor University. The award recognizes excellence in classroom teachers. Macdonald’s Nov. 14 lecture, “Behind the Scenes: From Strong Geoscience Courses to an Energized Community” in the Brinkley Commons Room in Miller Hall of the Mason School of Business was a companion offering to a lecture given last month at Baylor.

The lecture was appropriately geological in scope, starting small, as Macdonald first described how students learn to “describe and interpret geology” by contemplating the sequence of forces that shaped one piece of earth.

“Let me take you into the field with my class,” Macdonald invited. A PowerPoint projection behind her showed members of her Reading the Earth freshman seminar, co-taught with fellow William & Mary geologist Brent Owens, standing on a slab of Petersburg granite at the Falls of the James.

“This might look like a dull-looking rock,” she said, “but it is completely gorgeous and has a most interesting story to tell!”

Then Macdonald broadened her focus, addressing study habits, strategies to increase student—and faculty—motivations, an overview of course design, and a view of the academic department as an intellectual community before moving up in scale to her involvement in geoscience education at the national level. Like geology, she noted, geoscience education involves a complex system. Addressing each component of the system—as well as the system as a whole—is important for improving undergraduate education , she said.

“I’m looking out in the room and I see a lot of the next generation of geoscientists here,” she said. “But we also want to be able to educate people who are not going to be geoscientists about the geosciences. They’ll be better able to be good elementary school teachers; they’ll be better able to make good decisions about voting. We care a lot about those things in the department.”

Macdonald fills three overlapping roles in geoscience: practicing scientist, teacher to undergraduate students, and mentor to young faculty and graduate students. She came to William & Mary in 1983, joining what has always been a strictly undergraduate department—and one that values its tradition of research.

The department’s casual geology students —those who take intro classes to fill requirements—along with the solid core of geology majors, provide Macdonald with opportunity to develop and refine a learner-centered approach to teaching.

Her goal, she told the audience of more than 100, is to develop teaching strategies that will produce “intentional learners.” She shared some of her insights into student motivation and teaching students how to learn. Macdonald stressed the importance of understanding the role of affective factors—such as motivation, feelings, values and stereotypes—on learning. 

She noted that she has worked with two undergraduates, Catie Broznak and Katie Hamilton, on their undergraduate research investigating motivation and learning strategies of William and Mary geology students.

Macdonald spoke of the importance of an effective academic department to learning. She cited several practices and traditions of William & Mary’s own Department of Geology, especially co-curricular contributions of the department that support learning.

“We have a requirement that all students do undergraduate research,” she said. “We think this is a fabulous learning experience for the students and the faculty, to be doing important research, collecting data in the field, working in the lab.”

Departmental field trips are popular: “Students and faculty go into the field for a weekend; it’s not even part of a course. And it costs money!,” she said. “I’ve talked with students and they say that a field trip is a transformative experience for them, because it’s their chance to leave the classroom behind and see what it’s like out in the field.”

Macdonald has been one of the creators and participants of On the Cutting Edge, a national professional-development program for geoscience faculty. The initiative has received some $8 million in funding from the National Science Foundation since 2002, she said. The On the Cutting Edge web site contains a wide variety of  geoscience resources, including around 1,500 teaching activities, she noted. The leaders of On the Cutting Edge also hold workshops for geoscience faculty. One is slated to be held at William & Mary this summer, she noted. Macdonald participates in the workshops directed at early-career geoscience faculty and graduate students.

 William & Mary Provost Michael Halleran introduced Macdonald at the Cherry Award Lecture. “The Cherry Award is one of the national high marks for recognizing teaching excellence,” he said.