Kim West

I am an Earth scientist and teacher at the University of Saskatchewan. My job is unique in that I work for our teaching and learning unit on campus and occasionally, I teach classes in our geology department. I recently completed my PhD degree in Geology from Carleton University and my first degree, a Bachelor of Science Honours, came from the University of Saskatchewan.

I have always been fascinated by Earth science. When I was a child, I carried around rocks and minerals in my pockets and tried to figure out what they were. To me, picking up a rock and trying to figure out its story was like trying to figure out ‘who dun it' in a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery novel. Part of the novelty for me was learning how and where to search for clues, coming up with the right questions to ask, and piecing the clues together to form a coherent and believable theory or story.

My role at the University Learning Centre involves teaching classes (in geology and on teaching), collaborating with colleagues from different departments on teaching and learning initiatives and projects, and engaging in research on teaching and learning in the sciences. My greatest accomplishment to date has been working with my colleagues on the design and development of several programs for graduate student teachers and new faculty, including GSR 989: Introduction to University Teaching, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Program, and Transforming Teaching.

Q: What is the title of your job and what do you do, Who do you work for, and where are you based?

A: I'm an Academic Program Coordinator (Science) at The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon. I work with faculty, sessional lecturers, and graduate student teachers who wish to learn more about teaching and learning or who want to improve their teaching skills. My role involves teaching classes (in geology and on teaching), collaborating with colleagues from different departments on teaching and learning initiatives and projects, and doing research on teaching and learning, particularly in the sciences.

Q: What is your typical routine? Where do you work?

A: My typical routine involves spending time in my office, the library, or in a classroom from 8:30am-4:30pm. In my position, I work with students and teachers from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds and therefore much of my time is spent collaborating and working with people all over campus. Each year, I typically attend one or two international or national conferences on geology or teaching. While completing my PhD, I spent several seasons studying a volcano called Mount Churchill on the Yukon-Alaska border. Some of the outreach work that came out of my PhD thesis involved working with elementary and high school students and teachers in Yukon-Alaska communities, and preparing a brochure for the general public about the “White River ash”- the volcanic ash that was produced when Mount Churchill erupted approximately 1200 and 1900 years ago. This brochure is currently distributed to schools and tourist agencies throughout the region by the Yukon Geological Survey.

Q: What equipment/machinery do you use?

A: Currently I am not using any special equipment or machinery, as the majority of my work involves teaching at the university level or through outreach projects. However, I do like to experiment with new and different types of technology that I feel will enhance my students' learning experiences. For example, last year I introduced clickers in my first-year geology class. Clickers are small hand-held devices whereby students enter in their responses to review or discussion questions during the lecture. I believe learning is more meaningful when students are actively engaged in the content rather than passively listening to a lecture. Using clickers is one of many methods I use to try and make learning more meaningful and interactive in the classes I teach.

Q: What education or training is required for your job?

A: My position is a bit unusual in that it requires knowledge in two specialized areas: geology and teaching. At the U of S, and at most other universities in Canada and the United States, a PhD is required to teach geology at the university level. Most people who work at instructional development centres, like the one I work for at the University of Saskatchewan, have a Bachelor or Masters degree in Education in addition to specialized training in one area. Since my specialized training is in geology, most of the knowledge I have acquired about teaching is experiential- that is, it comes directly from experience teaching and working with faculty, sessional lecturers, and graduate student teachers.

Q: What kind of personal traits do you recommend for this profession?

A: Overall, in any job I think it's important to have passion for what you do. If you love what you do, it doesn't feel like work, and other people benefit from the enthusiasm you share. In teaching this quality is extremely important because if you are not excited about the subject matter, then why would other people be?

You'll find geologists doing many different types of jobs- working in the oil and gas, or mining and mineral industry, mapping or doing research in the field with the Geological Survey of Canada, working as an environmental consultant, or teaching in a university or college. Regardless of what you do as an Earth scientist, you'll almost always find yourself exploring the natural environment. As the famous Indiana Jones once said, “You've got to get out of the library if you want to become a great archaeologist!” The same is also true if you want to become a great Earth scientist.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: Solving problems as an Earth scientist requires input from and knowledge of many other disciplines, including biology, physics, chemistry as well as sociology, environmental studies, and geography amongst many others. This type of work is motivating for people like me who like to think about the big picture or how concepts are interrelated. For example, for my PhD research I examined the past history of Mount Churchill and talked with elders to document the impact past volcanic eruptions had on the First Nations community. I also studied the impact of the volcanic eruptions on the natural environment, and discussed the effects that a future eruption might have on Canadian society. I really love the interdisciplinary nature of Earth science because it allows me to be a creative and flexible teacher and researcher.

Q: What are the advantages?

A: There are many advantages to being an Earth scientist, but I have to say I love the travel aspect the most. I love learning about the geology of a new place, asking questions, and making new discoveries. I also love sharing what I have learned with my students and discussing photographs of amazing geological features. One of my favourite quotes about geology is “For geologists, life is a field trip!”

Q: What are the advancement opportunities for this career?

A: There are lots of opportunities for advancement, depending on what your career goals are. If you are planning a career in academia, you will likely be searching for a post-doctoral position after you obtain your PhD. You may find work as a sessional lecturer teaching classes at a college or university. If you find yourself in a tenure track position at a university, you will be spending much of your time teaching, researching, and carrying out administrative or community-related projects.

Q: How physically demanding is your job?

A: Not demanding at all, unless you count lifting heavy books or lugging samples of galena around to rock and mineral workshops!

Q: Why did you choose this career?

A: I've always been an Earth scientist at heart. When I was six years old, I carried around rocks and minerals in my pockets and tried to figure out what they were. As a pre-teen, I begged my parents to take me places where I could learn more about geology; Drumheller, Alberta, was one of my favourite spots to find fossils. In some ways, being an Earth scientist is like being a detective- it requires asking good questions as well as finding answers. I think part of the enjoyment for me was in creating my own questions!

Q: What is your most memorable moment/event/place related to your experience as an Earth scientist?

A: My most memorable event happened while on a field trip in Hawaii. At the time, I was still a student, in my third year of studying geology. It was my first time visiting a place where volcanism was actively occurring. I remember climbing to the top of a small active vent near Kilauea (the most active volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii) and watching the steam rise from the ground. I remember placing my hand on the ground and realizing the ground beneath me was hot. While I would never encourage visiting an area like this on your own (even in the company of professional geologists it is hazardous) this experience was monumental for me in realizing the power of natural processes and the effect these processes can have on human society.

Q: What is your advice to newcomers?

A: Be curious about your natural environment. You can learn a lot about geology by making observations about the world around you. In fact, Jane Goodall made many observations as a child about animals and is now one of the world's most famous primatologists. The next time you are out with family or friends take some time to appreciate the natural beauty of the world around you. Start by picking up a rock and try to figure out its story- how it formed or where it came from. Take a walk by a lake, or river, and try to determine how the pebbles on the beach arrived there. You'll soon discover that geology, just like many other sciences, is about asking questions as much as it is about finding answers.

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