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GeoEd: An African GIFT Experience

9 Apr

This year the EGU embarked on a new journey into Africa to deliver its renowned Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) programme to teachers in South Africa and neighbouring countries in collaboration with UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA). The topic: Climate Change and Human Adaptation. Jane Robb reports on the week’s events…

Set in ‘the windy city’ of Port Elizabeth (or PE if you’re local), in stunning 28°C sun, complimentary blue skies and a dash of wind, we made our way to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) Missionvale Campus to begin the proceedings. Missionvale Campus is situated just outside Port Elizabeth, in the heart of surrounding communities. The campus is intricately connected to these communities, with a commitment to supporting the development of those local to Port Elizabeth through school education and lifelong learning – making it the ideal location for the workshop.

All of us outside the front of NMMU’s Missionvale Campus. Credit: Jane Robb

All of us outside NMMU’s Missionvale Campus. (Credit: Jane Robb)

We were welcomed by Thoko Mayekiso, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Engagement at NMMU, followed by a short introduction given by the co-organisers Sarah Gaines from UNESCO and Carlo Laj from the EGU, and from our host Moctar Doucouré (from NMMU’s Africa Earth Observation Network – Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute, better known as AEON-ESSRI).

To open the workshop, we had Maarten de Wit (from AEON–ESSRI) discuss the importance of geology in understanding climate change. Maarten put geology and climate change into a South African, and broader African, political and social context. He focused on the African concept of ‘observing the present and considering the past to ponder the future’ – a notion that is summed up in the isiXhosa word Iphakade. Maarten introduced Iphakade in the context of Earth stewardship: scientifically informed, ethical and democratic management of both the physical and living systems of our planet. The Earth is a system, but so is our society. Because our society is reliant on the Earth, it has a responsibility to manage it. Therefore, we need to apply our appreciation of our culture and how it will change in the next 50 years to our understanding of how to manage the Earth system.

Echoing the need for systems thinking in managing climate change, Rob O’Donoghue spoke about the South African school curriculum on climate change. Rob highlighted the need for systems thinking to be integrated as a learning enhancement tool. He also echoed the usefulness of the past in learning about the present, not only in a geological context, but in a social one. Africans have lived through climate variability in the past and have met these challenges with innovative solutions in agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, sanitation and more. Both applied their perspectives on the importance of understanding the socio-cultural aspects of climate change to teaching. They emphasised the need to help relate climate change to children, and stop it seeming scary and impossible to manage. By using stories, art, music and other culturally informed methods we can make understanding and responding to climate change more manageable for future generations.

During lunch (with amazing live local music providing the background to our delicious South African cuisine) we discussed with the teachers their reactions to the workshop so far. What concerned the teachers most was the need to make climate change accessible to their children without forcing an impossible change on them. In many African countries, including South Africa, people are aware that their daily practices are harming the environment. However, unlike developed countries, these practices are essential to survival on a daily basis. The teachers simplified the issue: environment is directly linked to survival in this part of the world. These people do not have the luxury to change their daily practices. If anything, this highlighted the need for workshops like this, which help teachers find different ways to engage the next generation with climate change in a way that means they can continue to develop.

Sally Dengg explaining an experiment about thermohaline circulation to the teachers. For some of our practicals we had to improvise with materials commonly available to teachers – instead of test tubes we used plastic bottles. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Sally Dengg explaining an experiment about thermohaline circulation to the teachers. For some of our practicals we had to improvise with materials commonly available to teachers – instead of test tubes we used plastic bottles. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Carl Palmer from the South African based Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Science reiterated this point in his talk on how climate change affects us. He highlighted the fact that poor communities cannot deal with climate change in the way developed countries can. And yet, Africa is a large continent, rich in unique landscapes and biodiversity, with an incredible diversity of people too. As Guy Midgely from the South African Biodiversity Institute also discussed, Africa contains a wealth of natural resources as well as a wealth of variable climates and people. Carl emphasised the need to excite and inspire our children about what Africa has to offer, encouraging them to choose science. Not just geoscience however: we need them to address the issues of sanitation, malnutrition, health and politics in tandem with climate to make a real difference. In other words, rather than a threat, climate change is an opportunity to engage kids with science.

To compliment these insightful approaches to climate change education, the workshop integrated several presentations on the science behind climate change and areas where climate change impacts are being felt, including agriculture (Bernard Seguin), water (Roland Schulze), ocean changes (Jean-Pierre Gattuso), as well as remote sensing of the atmosphere (Michael Verstraete). These presentations opened up the discussion for how to teach children specifically about the scientific aspects of climate change: what happens to these different Earth systems in a changing climate, and how can we transfer this knowledge to children in the classroom? For the teachers, although there was a lot of information packed into a tight curriculum, this was incredibly valuable as it catered directly to the GIFT workshop mantra: reducing the time from research to textbook. These presentations gave teachers the opportunity to hear about the science directly from the scientists.

The World Challenge Game in action. ‘Families’ had to colour in sheets to make money for their countries within a time limit. (Credit: Jane Robb)

The World Challenge Game in action. ‘Families’ had to colour in sheets to make money for their countries within a time limit. (Credit: Jane Robb)

In addition to these presentations, we were also treated to demonstrations and practical exercises by Ian McKay, from the University of the Witwatersrand and the International Geoscience Education Organisation, Sally Dengg from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and Carl Palmer. We experienced interactive discussions, marshmallows and chemical structures, solar cookers, production of carbon dioxide, acidifying oceans and exploding hydrogen balloons. To finish up the workshop, we watched the film Thin Ice and ended with a critical discussion on how the teachers will disseminate what they have learnt to their colleagues, students, communities and councils.

What we were able to take away from the workshop was the need for a paradigm shift in the way we think and educate about climate change in an African context, where the participants helped us understand how to make the global local. Climate change isn’t just a scientific issue; it is implicitly related to people, politics and survival. To engage children with climate change science, we need to develop a systems thinking approach, balancing global responsibilities while maintaining healthy lifestyles and valuing the cultures and perspectives of the very people we are trying to engage.

By Jane Robb (EGU Educational Fellow), Sarah Gaines (UNESCO) and Carlo Laj (Chair of the EGU Education Committee)

GeoEd: Why fieldwork is essential to training the next generation of Geoscientists

3 Apr

Our latest GeoEd article is brought to you by Simon Jung, a lecturer and palaeoceanographer from the University of Edinburgh, who highlights what makes fieldwork a brilliant way to understand Earth processes…

Studying geosciences involves training across a broad range of natural sciences. Only equipped with such background knowledge will students be able to grasp key concepts in the various sub-disciplines that geosciences has to offer. So what’s the best way to get ahold of such knowledge?

A substantial part of the theoretical background in geosciences can be delivered via lectures and/or practicals. Using this standard teaching approach, for example, knowledge of the various rock types and the minerals they contain can be conveyed clearly and effectively. Background information on different soil types, or shapes of rivers, can also be passed on in this fashion.

For something more visual, geological or geomorphological maps can create a great 2D representation of a 3D structure, giving basic insights into the relationship between larger sets of strata or geomorphological features in a given region.

There are, however, important limitations as to the level of understanding students can possibly reach through a classroom-only approach. And these can only be overcome through field training.

Viewing a landscape from an elevated spot – or otherwise suitable location – in the field allows much better comprehension of the processes that have shaped a region. For the first time, truly understanding the nature of the succession of different rock types is an eye-opening and life changing event. Similarly, grasping the role of time in allowing long-term erosion to shape a region can only be attained in the field. A visit to the northwest of Scotland is one way to achieve these goals.

Studying an outcrop in northwest of Scotland. (Credit: Simon Jung)

Studying an outcrop in northwest of Scotland. (Credit: Simon Jung)

Geological and geomorphological research in northwest Scotland has been instrumental in laying the foundations of many crucial concepts in geosciences. The area offers easy access to a unique set of rock sequences documenting Scotland’s early geological history, the explosion of life on Earth, as well as how rivers and ice have shaped the modern landscape. Students from the University of Edinburgh are frequently taken out here, where they are exposed to a huge variety of geological and geomorphological phenomena.

The more specific learning outcomes center around three main areas:

  1. Hands on training in the field helps refining all aspects related to fieldwork (e.g. observational skills, mapping)
  2. Using self-generated field data regarding rock sequences and their 3D orientation allows students to comprehend the long-term geological history
  3. Students also obtain a greater understanding of the role of erosion in shaping the landscape in a region. How? By determining river runoff at a number of locations and making measurements of the sediments being transported

Such excursions allow students to develop an improved understanding of the local geological and geomorphological history of a region.  At a larger scale, they will also develop a more comprehensive view of the processes having shaped the Earth. As the video below documents, this journey is not only educating, but fun too!

By Simon Jung, Lecturer in Palaeoceanography, University of Edinburgh


Scientists are humans

19 Feb

The title of this article may come as a bit of a shock, but it’s true. Scientists aren’t born scientists; they start off just like any other person and one day decide that the natural world is fascinating enough to them that they want to make a career out of figuring out its secrets. But, sometimes it is hard as an ‘outsider’ to see into science, especially academia. Sometimes it can seem like science by itself is just a mass of complicated figures explaining something so small it is hard to understand why anyone would care. Pair that with the monster that is the world of academia and you can have a rather inaccessible field.

But, for those that describe themselves as ‘outsiders’ to science, or those that are still deciding on their future career pathways and currently find science daunting, there is hope. And yes, there is also hope for all those scientists who really are normal people and just want to help people realise that and share their wonderful research with the world. We call it I’m a Geoscientist – Get me out of here!

IAG logo large

The EGU has teamed up with Gallomanor, a UK company that runs the events I’m a Scientist (Get me out of here) and I’m an Engineer (Get me out of here) to fund a European-wide sister project called I’m a Geoscientist – Get me out of here! where we provide school students with the opportunity to meet and interact with real scientists.

This is the chance for school kids across Europe to meet geoscientists, and ask them any questions they want. This could mean finding out that to be a scientist you don’t have to know everything, many scientists are just experts in their own very small, niche area. It could mean finding out why those scientists are interested in something so niche, and realising that, actually, the subject can be fascinating, it could change the world – or both!

And for those who are not still in school and can’t ask questions themselves, you can view all the questions and answers online while the event is going on. If you are a class or teacher not formally taking part in the event, you can still download the free teacher resource packs and take part at your own pace by discussing the questions and answers provided.

For scientists, this is the chance to get your research out there, to show the world what awesome stuff you do on a daily basis. And also, crucially, to let kids see that you also are a normal person as well! It’s a great chance to get some public engagement time logged for your project and discussing it with kids will help you communicate what you do in new and insightful ways that could help you see your research in a new light.

The entire event is held online, so that scientists and school classes across Europe can talk to each other without having to leave their labs or classrooms. So, if you are a teacher with a busy class schedule you can plan one or two hours of preparation time well ahead of the event and if you are a scientist all you need is a few breaks away from your fieldwork or experiments to respond to some questions on your laptop. So, why not get involved?

This opportunity is open to teachers who have taken part in an EGU Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) event in the past and scientists that are members of the EGU. If you are a GIFT teacher then you can register your classes (up to two per teacher) at If you are a scientist you can register to take part (and also sign up to become an EGU member if you are not already) at

By Jane Robb, EGU Educational Fellow

Geotalk: Matt Herod on awesome outreach and education

15 Jan

Matt Herod has long been part of the EGU Blog Network, where he writes about all things geochemistry from his base in the University of Ottawa. In this week’s Geotalk, we had the chance to talk to Matt about all the other science communication activities he’s been up to – from mentoring kids in Canada to speaking science in schools…

This year GeoSphere had its first birthday as part of the EGU Blog Network, but you’ve been sharing science online for longer than that – what got you started?

Awesome question. I was actually studying for my comprehensive exam at the time and needed something to distract me for a little while so I started a blog. I didn’t actually expect to enjoy blogging so much, but once I started writing and engaging with other bloggers and readers I started to get addicted. The real motivation, besides procrastinating, for starting the blog though was that I was deploring the fact that in Canada, and I suspect other parts of the world, geoscience is left out of elementary and high school curricula. Physics, biology and chemistry are covered extremely well, which is great, but geology, the most integrative of the four is generally left out. It is just not taught at all. I found that really bizarre since I think it is very practical for everyone out there to have a basic knowledge of Earth science. I would hear stories and read articles in the news about fracking and climate change, and mining and a whole slew of other environmental Earth science issues that people were up in arms about all over the world and think “if only they understood a bit more about geology they might not get so panicked, or they might react appropriately when something worth panicking about happened.” The people that I spoke with about geology all expressed an interest in learning more, but they just didn’t know where to start. They had all finished high school and university so they weren’t about to pick up a textbook. Ultimately, the real problem was that the desire to learn about geology was there, but not the access. So to help make geology more accessible I started blogging and have enjoyed it ever since.

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

As well as science writing, you get out of the office and into the classroom – what do you get up to? 

As far as science outreach goes my two favourite programs have been the Aboriginal Mentorship Program (AMP) and another called Science Travels (ST). AMP is a program run from the University of Ottawa that pairs science grad students up with one or more local aboriginal students. We go to their school and give science talks, run activities and tell them about ourselves. We then mentor them as they prepare a science fair project using our lab facilities to collect data. The students then come to the University of Ottawa for a science fair, lab tours etc. for about three days later in the year. The program involves monthly visits with the students and I participated for two years.

The other program is called Science Travels. ST sends a group of four graduate students to remote northern communities across Canada to give science presentations in local schools throughout the region over the course of a week. I have been on two trips both to northern Ontario. Often the schools that we visit are in native reserves and can often have issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse in the community. I have also participated for four years with Let’s talk science going in to local Ottawa high school and elementary school classrooms to give science talks.  

What are the highlights of working with school students in the university labs? 

The best thing about bringing students into university labs or going to their classroom is the feeling that my colleagues and I are opening someone’s eyes to science and hopefully inspiring them to consider pursuing science as a career. The goal of having actual researchers leave their labs and enter the classroom is to show elementary and high school students that science does not have to be boring and that it can also be a viable career option. By having researchers present the science it helps to bring validity to the presentation, but also makes something that might seem like a silly science demo more applied and accessible. Bringing students into our labs is also great. It is a cool experience explaining how the “black box” sitting on that bench over there can count atoms and even the most hardened “cool kid” softens when you bring them face to face with a mass spectrometer. Also, things that we take for granted like custom glassware or an oven that can reach 1000 degrees is completely new to these students and it is an eye-opening experience for them and us to teach them about how we use the tools in our labs to answer the big questions about the Earth. FYI showing off a Scanning Electron Microscope might be the best lab tour activity ever…or a flume, and I can’t wait to show of our new Accelerator Mass Spectrometer in a few months, that’ll really blow their minds!

Sharing the excitement of science in schools. (Credit: Matt Herod)

Sharing the excitement of science in a school. (Credit: Matt Herod)

And what are the challenges?

The biggest challenge with science outreach is finding the time. When we are in our own little research bubbles it can often be hard to escape and do something else, and if we do, it is easy to feel a bit guilty that we are not doing research. However, the key is to simply realise that getting out there and teaching science is totally worthwhile and that the work will always be there when we get back…at least that’s how I rationalise it. Preparing presentations and activities can also be pretty time consuming, but there are some great websites (e.g. out there with science activities for kids and if you are part of an organisation like Let’s Talk Science lots of pre-made kits exist that cover a wide range of topics. It is always nice to add a bit of personal experience to talks and presentations though and a good story can really help make the presentation memorable.

Do you have any top tips for scientists that want to work with school kids?

The best piece of advice I can give for anyone that wants to get involved in science outreach is try to find an organisation to work with. Don’t try and go it alone. Find a group that has laid the groundwork and made the connections and start there. The time commitment is as much or as little as you would like to give and the rewards for engaging in outreach and working in your community far outweigh any lost work time. Not only that, it is a great way to practice your speaking and explaining skills in front of a non-critical audience. Getting up at a conference to give a talk is nerve-racking enough even if you are comfortable with public speaking let alone if you have not given that many talks before. My last tip is don’t overthink it. If you go to a classroom and give a talk don’t worry about being perfect. In my experience the students and teachers are too happy to have a visitor, especially one who has experience in research, to try and critique every little aspect of your presentation and activity. The best thing you can do is go in, give your presentation with enthusiasm and enjoy it!

Had your fill of sci comm chat? Find out about the latest geochemical research over at GeoSphere:


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