14 December 2019

New module: how did it go?

My Palaeoceanography module, which I had inherited from James, would cease to be. With James, we still had a micropalaeontology research group. Now it's only me! And then it seems a bit pointless to teach them a very detailed palaeoceanography module. If it inspires students and they want to do a MSc in it we have to disappoint them; we just don't have the facilities. So we set out to change the module. And we would go applied!

What we now would do was have five external people give a guest lecture. They could pick the topic themselves, as long as it was applied marine geology! And we made sure we would tackle all topics the students would need to understand before they would be able to follow the guest lectures. Jaco spoke of Milankovitch cycles. I spoke of all the things you do with sediment cores: stable isotope analysis, palaeothermometry, dating, X-ray diffraction. And we had a third internal lecturer: Martin, who is into sediment transport and that sort of stuff. And then we were ready for the guests!

We had quite a variety. It started with a bloke who is a guest lecturer with us: that was easy, he was around anyway. And he talked about carbonates, and everything you can store in them (hydrocarbons, water, CO2) and how the carbonate genesis affects to what extent you can get all that in there and then out again. Or not out, in the case of CO2.

Then we had Dick, my old PhD supervisor. His talk initially went terribly  wrong! We couldn't get the technicalities working. But he did a retry and then it worked. Hurray! He is worried about gas hydrates in offshore sediments, and whether they come out when the climate warms, creating runaway warming. And he had been scouring millions of years worth of sediments to answer that question and unfortunately, the answer is 'yes'. Oh dear!

We also had a lady from Liverpool who talked about clay coatings in reservoirs (again, reservoirs for whatever really: hydrocarbons, water, CO2) and how they affect reservoir quality.

Then we had a chap who talked about pretty much everything. Submarine fans, basin infill, reconstructing earthquakes from the sedimentary record, storm surges, walruses, and whatnot.

The last one was a Southampton bloke who spoke mainly of geohazards and how to try to predict and avoid them. He spent quite some time on submarine cables, and it's easy to see why: communication is very important these days and a lot of it travels through submarine cables. If you sever them there will be lots of people in a lot of trouble! And it's not as if it can't happen; we already had stuff like that happen in the late 1920s with telegraph cables! And there are many more cables around now. And counties like Mauritania have already found out what it's like if you get cut off for a bit. I don't think they liked it.

The students were asked to be inspired by the guest lectures and write a 10 minute lecture themselves. They would just pick out an aspect of one of the lectures and delved a bit deeper. We ended up with lots of marine renewables, but we also had mud volcanoes, ocean acidification, the best way of measuring clay composition in a rock, palaeolimnology (a bit on the edge of the topic!) and whatnot. Of course there was quite some variation in the quality of the talks (there always is) but altogether it was very interesting!

To finish it all off we did a revision session, on request of one of the students. Normally, the students have old exams to practice on, but this is a new module so there are none. So now they could ask stuff! And as usual, there was a lot of sitting around hoping that someone else would say something. And questions about the exam format; as good as none about the material. It often goes that way. But I think we gave some useful pointers.

Now the only things still to come are the exam, and the module evaluation. The first thing happens in January, and the other has started. The students are asked to fill out an online form about what they thought of the module. Anonymously! And it's very informative but it's also flawed; it's hard to convince the students to spend time on this, maybe because it's not them who benefit from it anyway. So the risk always is that you can only motivate those students who have an axe to grind! So it can be a bit disheartening. And because of the small sample size you sometimes find yourself changing something because of the module evaluations, only to get slated in next year's module evaluation, because you happen to have polled some students with quite different opinions from last year's. Oh well! We try our best. But I think the module is a stayer!

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