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Hancock leads students through geology's larger classrooms

Greg Hancock Geologists have a bit of an advantage when it comes to teaching, admits Assistant Professor Greg Hancock. After all, they do have larger classrooms. “We’re lucky because we’ve got the entire world outside to show students how we think about geology,” he says.

Today, Hancock’s classroom is under a cloudless sky in a small parking lot behind McGlothlin Street Hall. Dressed almost as casually as most of his students—his green knit shirt neatly tucked into blue jeans—Hancock mingles and jokes with a few early arrivers while waiting for the rest of the students in the surface-processes lab to gather. Though the air is crisp, the sun is just warm enough to persuade a few students to scoot into the building’s shadow. Hancock grabs his mobile dry erase white board and joins them around the corner.

“Have you been getting excited about the things we’ve been talking about in class recently?” Hancock asks his lab. Waiting only a moment, he smiles and continues, “‘Yes’ is the right answer to that one.” It turns out to be the last answer Hancock gives up so easily.

Making rain on the topographies

Hancock’s students are interested in what they have been learning; it becomes evident by their unprompted participation as the professor flows smoothly through the lesson portion of the lab—the concepts associated with the formulas used in surface-diffusion calculations for different topographies. Then he heads straight for the application. Grabbing four plastic shoeboxes filled with sand, Hancock tells his students that they will be making their own small topographies and testing them in “rain.” Groups of two and three students quickly begin their projects, shaping and patting the sand into steep slopes and scarps. “Even though we’re building these little things in a box, there are actually many real-world things they are analogous to,” Hancock tells the class as he wanders through the groups, leaning down occasionally to offer suggestions or answer questions.

After the topographies have been sculpted, Hancock leads the students to the testing area, where their sand creations must endure a brutal minute of artificial rain. Students position their boxes on the pavement beneath the spout of the purple garden sprinkler, which is positioned about 12 feet above the ground as it extends from McGlothlin Street Hall’s brick wall. Hancock disappears inside for a moment, and water coughs and then cascades from the spout, drenching the topographies. Students watch intently as their sand sculptures mutate in the rain—diffusion in action.

Hancock heads back inside to turn off the water, and students gather their topographies, return to the shade and take more measurements. Then it’s back to the sprinkler for round two of the rain.

This time, with water still raining down, Hancock notices something in one container and cannot control his excitement. Pointing to an odd diagonal groove formed in the sand, he blurts out, “Ooooh. Look at that guy!” halfway to himself, halfway to the lab group.

His enthusiasm is contagious. During the third round of rain, a few students begin cheering for diffusion, trying to get Hancock to leave the water on just a little longer so they can see what will happen.

“I think the best way to get students excited about geology is to do geology with them in some way. You know, none of us really like to sit in a classroom and just listen, but it’s relatively easy to get them interested if we have them doing hands-on things,” he says.

Curiosity leads to profession

Indeed, it was a similar curiosity—a fascination with what water will do to the sand—that led Hancock to his profession.

“As a kid growing up in Florida, I would go out to the beach and basically build streams and hills, and make dams and dam up lakes and let them burst and watch the sand get transported….I really loved watching water acting on the surface and what it could do to the surface,” Hancock says.

But it was not until he took an undergraduate course in hydrology at Middlebury College in Vermont that Hancock made the connection between his childhood and his future. “Up until that point, I never realized that the things I was interested in as a kid on the beach could be a discipline,” he says, “so from then, I totally switched focus.”

Hancock’s research today still stems from his days on the beach, though now his work focuses mostly on rivers and how rivers respond to being “disturbed or perturbed in some way or another.” Currently he’s studying the effectiveness of detention ponds in James City County.

“In this county there are more than 400 detention ponds, which are a pretty standard technique for trying to minimize the impact of land-use changes, but there is almost zero data on whether or not they actually work,” Hancock says. His goal is to assess their effectiveness first, and then go from there. Though he is approaching his research objectively, Hancock admits that his own notion is that the detention ponds are not particularly effective.

“All of the regulations for detention ponds are geared toward the design phase, but none of the regulations say you have to do anything with the ponds after that, so things begin to grow in them, you have sediment, erosion and so on,” Hancock says.

The significant environmental component evident in Hancock’s research is not one that all students are aware of when they begin his course, but time spent making sand topographies and subjecting them to heavy downpours helps students, quite literally, make that connection. Hancock also is aware that not all of his students are geology majors, so the focus of many of his courses tends to be much broader.

“My emphasis is a lot more about showing students how we approach problems as scientists, showing them how we generate questions and go about answering these questions through the collection of data. It’s much more about the process of doing science and geology, and I think that’s what students get excited about. We try to do original things where students are collecting their own data, and I think they get a better feeling about doing real work that’s not made up,” Hancock says.

A department-wide approach

That approach is employed by all the College’s geology faculty members, Hancock says. There is a common goal to stimulate the students’ intellectual curiosity and to maintain high expectations.

“Our goals are shared enough that we sit down all the time and talk about how we’re going to put the department together, and how our classes are going to relate. We try very hard to make our students understand that when you learn something in one class, it can be applied to other areas—I think it’s pretty unique,” Hancock says.

Any recognition that approach has garnered is also shared by the department, Hancock says. At this year’s annual Geological Society of America meeting in Denver, Colo., which begins Nov. 7, Hancock will receive the Biggs Award for Excellence in Earth Science Teaching, but he insists it is no big deal.

“It’s nice to win an award, although all of us are working hard,” Hancock says. “It’s nice to be recognized, but it doesn’t change anything.”

Although Hancock will not acknowledge his own unique ability as a teacher, his students do, and they quite obviously appreciate it. Even as he challenges them to recall the principles of potential and kinetic energy from their physics courses, students smile, laugh, participate and remain otherwise engaged in the learning process. Hancock refuses to give away answers; instead, he leads them in the right direction and, with a casual insistence, forces them to make the connections needed to solve problems.

But on this autumn day, at this point near the end of the hands-on portion of the lab, the students are so interested in what they are doing that the momentum carries them back to the classroom, where they eagerly begin the calculations and data-analysis portion of the day’s work.

They are still smiling; they are engaged.