Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Breaking New Ground
Geology’s Edwards has an explosive teaching style
By Kathryn Tirjan ’05
If the volcano will not come to Ben Edwards, assistant professor of geology, he creates his own. Employing innovative teaching methods, Edwards is taking the study of volcanism to another strata.

A firm believer that “students learn best by experiences and doing things hands-on,” Edwards makes a conscious effort to “move away from traditional lectures and note taking.” He recognizes that “designing experiments to replace concepts in lectures is difficult,” but he strives to create a learning environment “punctuated by demonstrations.”

In the lab, Edwards has perfected several means of conveying volcanic concepts to his students. When explaining viscosity—measurement of a liquid’s ability to flow—Edwards has his students observe the difference in velocities of syrups with different temperatures flowing down a tilted board. The students observe that the higher the temperature of the syrup (representing lava), the faster it flows. By extension, the syrup with the lowest temperature flows the slowest and therefore has the highest viscosity, or greatest resistance to flow.

Using a garbage can, a soda bottle, water and liquid nitrogen in a demonstration designed by Karen Harpp at Colgate University, Edwards simulates a volcanic eruption. He fills a garbage can partially with water, then places a sealed soda bottle containing liquid nitrogen in the garbage can. The bottle represents the magma chamber of a volcano; once the pressure is high enough, the bottle fractures, as a rock surrounding the chamber would fracture. The reaction causes a water column to shoot into the air, akin to lava erupting from a volcano.

Realistic as his experiments are, Edwards recognizes that simulations, and even the digital pictures he shares with his classes, cannot compare to the real deal.

“Taking students to see things like volcanoes leaves a lasting impression,” says Edwards. He goes where the volcanoes are—Hawaii, British Columbia, Iceland and Chile, often with his students.

Last year, over spring break, Edwards and Marcus Key, associate professor of geology, took 13 Dickinson students to Hawaii. Although they saw some black sand beaches, Edwards says they “spent most of [their] time looking at volcanoes.”

The group went on a 17-mile hike and saw an active lava flow, which was more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and moved at the rate of a few millimeters per second. Students dipped their hammers into the flow which enabled them to view “a rock some zero days, zero hours and zero minutes old,” says Edwards.

During the last two years, three Dickinson students also traveled to northern British Columbia and camped with Edwards, encountering “geology in the field,” as he says. “One of the different aspects of learning about being a geologist is being able to deal with whatever nature throws at you,” including the occasional grizzly bear.

In November, Edwards ventured to Iceland and Chile—in the same week.

On Sunday afternoon, Edwards saw the “third eruption in the last decade through the largest icecap in Europe.” Then he was off with two students to attend a conference on Friday in Chile and to climb Volcan Villarrica, “one of the most active volcanoes in Chile.”

Kate Wetherell ’05, a geology major who traveled with Edwards, has “seen more of the volcanoes of British Columbia than all but a handful of people on earth,” according to Edwards. Of the 800 people at the conference in Chile, fewer than a dozen were undergraduates, he says.

In January, Edwards joined Dan Schubert, associate professor of sociology, in leading 16 students to the West Indian island of Montserrat. Says Edwards, it was “in the best liberal-arts tradition—combining the sciences and humanities.” Students observed how the island’s topography has weathered hurricanes, flooding, mud flows and volcanic activity.

But the students also learned how natural hazards have affected the human inhabitants, incorporating the sociological component. Back on campus this spring, the students are analyzing what they experienced, taking geology and sociology classes.

By retelling personal experiences through pictures, simulating volcanic eruptions, demonstrating concepts like viscosity or taking students into the field, Edwards’ contagious enthusiasm and dedication combine to create an innovative teaching style that does not go unnoticed. If you need physical proof, just try finding a seat in one of his fully enrolled classes. •


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