Where'd That Rock Come From?
Department of Land Resource Science's outreach efforts meant to get kids jazzed up about earth sciences at Guelph
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Standing in a Waterloo gravel pit one day, Prof. Emmanuelle Arnaud, Land Resource Science, watched as a truck driver bent down and plucked up a stone. Turning the greenish rock in his fingers, he wondered aloud where the unusual-looking specimen had come from.
Sudbury, said the glacial geologist. She explained that a glacier had picked up the lump and carried it down to modern-day southern Ontario, where it was deposited — along with all the gravel — when the ice retreated.
Arnaud smiles as she recalls the trucker's enthusiasm. “He was so jazzed about that.”
Getting school kids — and especially prospective university students — “jazzed” about earth sciences is the purpose of a new outreach initiative by Arnaud's department. Hoping to pique interest in their field among kindergartners and high school seniors alike, she and Prof. Steve Sadura created a new link for K-12 teacher resources this spring on their department's website.
“There's a growing need for people with expertise in general sciences and earth sciences,” says Arnaud.
Take climate change, she says. One of the main ways to learn about past climatic events — warming or cooling — is to study how rock sediments reflect alternating periods of glacial advance and retreat. That's how she studies the so-called Snowball Earth hypothesis, or the idea held by many scientists that the planet was so cold about 600 to 800 million years ago that it was practically encased in ice.
Her studies of more recent events — albeit also measured in hundreds of millions of years — may also help oil and gas producers. Later this month, she and master's student Laura Weaver will present results to the Geological Association of Canada from their work on sedimentary rock cores from beneath Lake Erie. Their studies will help refine models — using geographic information systems and 3-D modelling — to predict the location and shape of underground deposits.
During the past two summers, Weaver studied the layered sediments in the cores to come up with a timeline of events of some 440 million years ago. Back then, today's southern Ontario lay closer to the equator and was covered by a subtropical sea. By recording sediment types throughout the rock samples, she has been able to trace changes in sea level connected with the building of the Appalachian Mountains.
That work began as a summer undergraduate research job for Weaver, who completed a geography degree before starting her master's with Arnaud. For her thesis, she's studying sedimentation in the Waterloo Moraine, a landform deposited by a glacier about 15,000 years ago.
“I find it fascinating,” she says, recalling how an undergrad course in glacial geology sparked her interest. “It's really neat to see how everything can fit together, how you can look at a rock and figure out how it got there.”
The U of G professors are worried that recent school curriculum changes in Ontario may crowd earth sciences off the timetable for many students. “The majority of schools don't offer it,” says Arnaud.
General science teachers may lack the background in geology or geography, she says. Even in schools where geography grads teach earth and space sciences, they may lack resources such as rock and mineral collections.
Her department often fields requests for classroom speakers or field-trip guides. Besides serving those functions, Arnaud has spoken to a local school board consultant about ideas for upgrading teachers' skills. She has also attended the provincial science teachers' conference.
Last year Weaver spoke about her work to middle-school groups visiting campus for S@GE (Science at Guelph Experience) camps. Arnaud was on this year's roster to address university-bound high school students taking part in U of G's annual Interaction conference.
“There's a strong departmental history of outreach, especially in agriculture,” she says. “Soil science faculty have always been involved with outreach efforts.”
Guelph offers programs in soil, earth, environmental and atmospheric sciences through her department, the Department of Geography and the Faculty of Environmental Sciences. Grads pursue careers in environmental consulting, science policy, industry, teaching, government and non-profit organizations.
The new departmental web page includes links to 21 sites, including National Geographic Kids, the Geological Society of America, Geoscape (landscapes, earth and water resources and natural hazards of Canadian communities) and Dr. Dirt's K-12 Teaching Resources. The list was compiled by Tracy Rowlandson, a former master's student in the department.
It was during her own school days in Toronto that Arnaud found her career path. She got “turned on to geography” through a Grade 7 project that required her to model a make-believe island from language to geography.