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Teaching skills

Paul Wright* asks: should the Geological Society be more ‘Professional’?

iuyTo me a key role of a professional body like the Society is to enshrine and ensure the highest professional standards; but this requires that the skills underpinning those standards are being taught.  What I judge from every conversation I have with colleagues of my generation is that something has gone wrong in the provision of skills training in the UK. 

I hear you reply that this is just some old guy going on about how much better things used to be, but ask yourself: who actually ensures these standards? The cosy world of university examiners is long in need of an overhaul.  You will reply, perhaps, that the Society’s accreditation system does this.  Well-meaning as that is, my experience is that it is essentially a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. 

My experience from universities and industry is that many key geological skills are no longer being taught effectively at undergraduate level.  The reasons for this decline are obvious: teaching skills requires time, commitment and expertise.  Most  departments struggle to cope with larger class sizes, and reduce ‘skills-based’ teaching in favour of information-based teaching (providing 10 lectures and a piece of coursework is cheaper than resourcing 10 lectures and 30 hours skills-based training in a lab).  Many departments replace retired staff who taught skills by research-only staff or even by non-Earth-scientists who lack the appropriate skills.

Does it matter? With this decline in skills provision and with the ever-shrinking number of geologists in universities, we will end up with a grossly under-skilled profession.  To draw an analogy with the medical profession (one which does set standards and ensures they are met) if we do nothing then before long we will see more and more ‘geologists’ with the equivalent of a basic ‘first aid’ qualification, very few GPs, few medical consultants who can diagnose and prescribe treatment, and even fewer surgeons.  The crux of my argument is that even if few practising geologists today collect their own data, unless they understand how it was collected they cannot appreciate its limitations and the uncertainties of its interpretation.

My suggestion is that, like some other professional bodies, the Society set skills-based exams.  If a British graduate in Earth sciences (geology) wants to be a practising geologist, they sit a Society accreditation exam.  Other professional bodies manage similar schemes.  The exam (or exams) would be skills-based, whereby the candidates are given data sets (rock - yes, real rock! – thin-sections, maps, seismic sections, geochemical data, structural plots, and hopefully fossils, numerical data (to demonstrate ability in data analysis and IT), to integrate, and provide a coherent interpretation of, a geological problem. 

Planning and executing this system will not be easy, but this graduate accreditation award could become the Gold Standard in the profession, internationally.  It would empower teaching staff in universities to restore the provision of key skills, something I know most desperately want to do.

  • Paul Wright is a former university academic and oil and gas industry scientist.  He was awarded a Grover E Murray Distinguished Educator award in 2015 by AAPG and is 2016 SEPM Pettijohn Medalist for ‘outstanding contributions in sedimentary geology’.