Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Tuesday, December 26, 2006
From This Issue
Volume 84 • Number 3
Winter 2007

The 'Key' to Learning
Paleontologist rocks steady with student help.
By Lauren DeFont

Imagine learning how to ride a bicycle by watching an instructional video or listening to someone explain the process. What would you really gain from that? Not nearly as much as you would gain from actually putting your feet on the pedals. That’s how Marcus Key, professor of geology, looks at teaching.

“It’s important for students to do science,” Key says. And he provides them every opportunity that he can. In his 18 years at Dickinson, he has done substantive independent research with more than 25 students.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas and a graduate student at Yale University, Key planned to be a research paleontologist. When an opportunity to teach at a small liberal-arts college presented itself, Key decided to give teaching a try.

“I had never taken an education class,” he admits. “I had no clue about teaching, but I decided that it’s just like science—you have a hypothesis: If I teach it this way, they will learn. If that fails, you reject that hypothesis and try another, and keep trying until something works.”

Key discovered that he had a passion for teaching. When the students are truly engaged in the subject, “I’m pumped,” he says emphatically. “I feed off the students’ energy, and they feed off mine.”

He began one-on-one research projects with Dickinson students right away, first with Steve Lev ’92. “In 1990, we were doing a class project on tempestites, which are marine sediments deposited by storms like hurricanes. Steve found one such deposit near Newville and collected the fossils. Based on something I was doing, he generated his own research idea and ran with it.”

That was just the beginning for Key. “I’ve worked with some amazing students,” he recalls. “Some really made me stretch by asking me to do things outside my research area. Man, I learned a lot from them.”

He is collaborating with one such student now. Even though Key is the college’s resident paleontologist, when Mike Burns ’07 told him he wanted to do a research project on Ankylosaurid dinosaurs, Key knew he was in trouble.

“Mike made cheat sheets for me,” he says, laughing, and tosses a stack of printouts depicting labeled dinosaur skeletons on the table. “When we’re in the lab, he rattles off their names like they’re the names of his brothers and sisters. I’m flipping through the printouts going, ‘Wait, which one is that?’ ”

Another aspect of teaching that Key enjoys—aside from being allowed to play with toys, as revealed by the shelves full of plastic dinosaurs in his office—is the way he is able to tackle the complicated subject matter in creative ways. For instance, when his History of Life class discussed the formation of the planets, he likened it to the way dust bunnies form under a dresser.

Key’s success at connecting with students was recognized with the 2005 Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching. Key was “shocked and honored” to be chosen by the senior class. The winner receives an honorarium, plus the opportunity to use accumulated funds from the Ganoe Memorial Fund to support teaching and research interests.

So what is the downside of being a professor at a small liberal-arts college? There’s only so much money to go around.

External grants, which provide a “big budget to do cool things,” are the most prestigious and the most competitive.

“Large research universities bring in more grant money than we do. That changes what we can do or what equipment we can buy,” Key explains.

In-house funding also is available, which comes from the dean’s budget and is doled out by the Research and Development Committee.

“We have a small but growing endowment for student-faculty research,” Key says, “and we need to keep growing it. Student-faculty research gives students a sense of independence, a sense of accomplishment, confidence and a taste of what research is really like.”

Key does extraordinary things with the resources he has available. He has taken Dickinsonians to the Bahamas, the Chesapeake Bay, Hawaii, Estonia and the Galapagos Islands.

And this spring, he is headed to New Zealand, thanks to the JA Valentine Visiting Professorship at the University of Otago. Along with a marine scientist and another geologist, Key will study how the chemistry of the ocean changes over time, and what effect this has on the evolution of marine animals.

Key has received several grants from the National Science Foundation, and his current study of bryozoans—colonial marine animals similar to corals—is funded by the Petroleum Research Fund.

“The faculty members here are doing so many cool things,” Key says. “At the big university I went to, it was hard to get a hold of a faculty member as an undergrad. At Dickinson, the main mission is teaching, and research with students augments the educational process and the experience.”


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