Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Creation of a Computer Modeling Course for Undergraduate Earth Science Students

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Creation of a Computer Modeling Course for Undergraduate Earth Science Students

Article excerpt


Entire fields within the Earth sciences now exist in which computer modeling has become the primary work of the discipline. Undergraduate geology/Earth science programs have been slow to adapt to this change, and computer science offerings frequently do not meet geology students' needs. To address these problems, a course in Computer Modeling in the Earth Sciences has been developed at Vassar College. The course uses the STELLA (Structural Thinking Experimental Learning Laboratory with Animation) iconographical box modeling software to teach the fundamentals of dynamical systems modeling and then builds on the knowledge students have gained with STELLA to teach introductory programming. Modeling topics include U-Pb concordia/ctiscordia dating techniques, the impact of climate change on a chain of lakes in eastern California, heat flow in permafrost, and flow of ice in glaciers by plastic deformation. The course has been received enthusiastically by students, who reported not only that they enjoyed learning the process of modeling, but also that they had a newfound appreciation for the role of mathematics in geology. Fully documented and debugged STELLA and Fortran models along with reading lists, answer keys, and course notes are available to anyone interested in teaching a course such as this.


In recent years computer modeling has gained importance in geological and environmental research as a means to generate and test hypotheses and to allow simulation of processes in places inaccessible to humans (e.g., outer core fluid dynamics, see Olsen and others, 1999), too slow to permit observation (e.g., erosionally-induced uplift of topography, see Small and Anderson, 1995), or too large to facilitate construction of physical models (e.g., faulting on the San Andreas, see Ward and Goes, 1993). Fields within the Earth Sciences now exist in which computer modeling has become the core work of the discipline. Examples include simulations of past climates, seismic hazards, and hydrogeology.

The increasing importance of computer modeling has led to an apparent disconnection between the direction in which geological research is moving and the curriculum in many undergraduate programs. Examination of course offerings at several highly selective undergraduate institutions reveals that none offer a course in computer modeling in geology. Thus, as students begin their graduate research careers, they may enter the world of modeling with little or no preparation.

While undergraduate Earth science students should, in theory, be able to take courses in computer science to address their future computational needs, in practice, finding suitable courses can be difficult. For example, with the exception of one independent study course, the Vassar College Computer Science department does not offer courses in individual programming languages. Instead, they teach courses such as Software Development Methodology, Computer Organization, Algorithmics, and Artificial Intelligence. While these courses are appropriate for students majoring in computer science, they do not serve geology students' needs. It is for these reasons that I decided to create a course that would address the mechanics of computer modeling within the context of geologic and environmental problems. Students would learn how to glean relevant information from the primary literature, how to break down complex geological and environmental problems into their component parts and relationships, how to represent those parts symbolically, and how to relate them to one another mathematically.

In creating a course in Computer Modeling in the Earth Sciences, my goal was also to motivate students to enhance their mathematical abilities. While I have found geology students to be quite capable in mathematics, many express anxiety over perceived inadequacies and are reticent to enroll in math courses that would prove useful to them in their future careers. …

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