Vol. 1, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2005

Narrowing the Gap between Teachers and Students

by Deborah Galyan

Michael Hamburger addresses “the very large space between instructors and students” that characterizes many large introductory classes by synthesizing many of the ideas about the benefits of small-group, experiential, and hands-on learning to create his own ideal learning environment.

Teaching and learning with his G188 students in the eastern Sierra Nevada each spring is the culmination of Michael Hamburger’s career-long goal to create courses that narrow the gap between teachers and students.

Nearly a decade ago, Hamburger began addressing “the very large space between instructors and students” that characterizes many large introductory classes, by developing a College of Arts and Sciences Topics Course, G141 Earthquakes and Volcanoes, an alternative to the traditional geology survey classes offered to freshmen and sophomores. He continues to refine the popular course, which is smaller and more focused than most introductory classes, enabling students to delve more deeply into seismology, tectonics, and volcanology.

As a participant in the 2000 Freshman Learning Project, he was impressed by the creativity and problem-solving skills his colleagues brought to the task of improving their teaching. “In subtle ways, FLP has influenced almost everything I do,” he observes. “In my classes, nearly every lecture is broken up with small discussion groups or interactive exercises. We do what I call an ‘open mouth’ test after exams; students discuss their answers together, and then have the option of retaking one of the exam questions. It’s a way of turning exams into more of a learning experience. And the labs have been redesigned to include an engaging group project that brings together the scientific and societal aspects of the class.”

In G188 Volcanoes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, Hamburger has synthesized many of the ideas about the benefits of small-group, experiential, and hands-on learning, putting them together to create his own ideal learning environment. And while he struggles with funding issues—G188 is significantly more expensive to offer than a traditional course, he still hopes that IU will be able to offer G188, and more classes like it, in the future.

“Looking at rock samples in a geology lab is boring for most students, but when they’re climbing a mountain that is literally made of glass, or they’re bombarded with the strange forms and colors and textures that make up a landscape, there’s a point every day when a light bulb turns on, and they experience a new understanding of the way the world works.”

The comments of his enthusiastic former students reveal that Hamburger, who is nearing his twentieth anniversary of teaching at IU, has a knack for helping students who may have been initially hesitant to connect deeply with the science of geology. “Michael radiates passion for geology and the mountains,” says Debby Basu, a sophomore and former G188 student. “It was a special experience, to have a teacher who is so dedicated to his students and to his field.”

But Hamburger is quick to say that the students aren’t the only ones who benefit from experiential, small-group learning; he is also energized by their original thinking and by their questions. During the course last year he was inspired to develop a new project, based on his current research on the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to detect movements of the earth’s surface associated with tectonic and volcanic activity, “a revolutionary new method that is allowing us to measure things we could only dream of a couple of decades ago.”

Hamburger will apply GPS technology to the Long Valley Caldera, “which has shown signs of significant renewed activity in the last several years—including swarms of thousands of earthquakes, uplift of the Earth’s surface by several feet, emissions of toxic gases, and changes in hot springs and fumaroles.”

The new research will be carried out in conjunction with a project called ”EarthScope,” a major National Science Foundation initiative centering on dynamic earth processes. “My involvement has definitely grown out of my teaching interests,” he says. “Now that I know the area well and have new scientific contacts there, it seems an ideal place to dig in and do research.”

Hamburger will be back in the field with new students this spring. “I love it,” he says. “It’s what I always imagined was supposed to happen when you’re teaching. There are always a few students who keep asking the really challenging questions—the ones that we can’t answer—and for me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Deborah Galyan is a novelist and freelance writer in Bloomington.

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