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Innovations in Teaching: Lessons Learned from the University of Montana

For Dr. Steve Sheriff, Professor at the University of Montana, finding new ways to capture students’ imagination and engage their interest in science is an evolving process.

As Steve notes, “I found over the years that students need more than traditional teaching methods. For example, I used to teach standard whole earth geophysics classes. But now, I’ve switched to teaching a broad range of geophysics in a very applied way. Course composition has changed as well and now I use a combination of classroom lectures (theory and physics), problem sets, laboratories and self-directed field assignments. “

Benefits for Students and Enrollments

The new approach seems to be paying dividends for both students and the geophysics program. Students are more excited by the course offerings and enrollments are increasing. Steve also attributes part of the success to a unique self-directed study initiative that requires the students to perform self-designed experiments.

For magnetics, for instance, Dr. Sheriff asks his students to identify a known magnetic source and then go out to the field and locate / acquire data from their source. They do all of the work independently — from survey design to acquisition to processing.

Over a few years students have used soccer goal posts, cars, stacks of mountain bikes, and the like as their known sources. Their results lead directly to discussions on buried sources along with upward and downward continuation.”

In addition to increasing learning retention, the self-study approach has also resulted in “a higher quality and more interesting set of project reports.”‘ The students also “really like the lab and field courses” which further adds to the learning process.

Magnetics as an Introduction to Geophysics

Dr. Sheriff notes that magnetic studies are a good introduction for students, especially for geologists who may be experiencing their first exposure to geophysics. “Magnetics is a super place to start for teaching. It’s easy and enables rapid visualization. In addition, it gives students a way to easily relate measurements made at surface to the subsurface – a process that is essential for geologists and geophysicists alike.”

Students at the University of Montana have been using GEM magnetometers in training for eight to ten years, and as Steve notes, “GEM’s systems are pretty good and easy to train on. I make sure that students practice in the lab before going to the field and the process becomes intuitive quite quickly.”

Online Curriculum and Teaching Materials

As part of his teaching efforts, he also developed a comprehensive web-based curriculum that can be accessed online. Dr. Sheriff is more than pleased to have other academic professionals visit his web site at the University of Montana to see the course outline.

It includes a “Quick Sheet” for working with the instrument, tips on using the magnetometer / gradiometer and other references. It’s a great start for designing a self-directed course using the GEM 19-T proton precession magnetometer!

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