Welcome from the Chair

October 2, 2013

Greetings Geology alumni!  I write in the midst of a gorgeous stretch of fall weather here in Middlebury.  This week has been unusually warm, but the foliage is spectacular and we know that cooler weather is just around the corner.  Looking back, it is clear that 2012-13 was an eventful year for the Geology Department.  In this newsletter members of the Department faculty provide updates of their work during the past academic year.  But here I would like to give you an overview of some of the most notable items since the last newsletter was distributed.

First, and foremost, many thanks to those who responded to the Department alumni survey last fall.  We received just over 100 responses, which is tremendous!  The results were very interesting, and although we are continuing to process the data, there are several interesting observations that I can summarize for you. 

  • Only 14% of respondents entered Middlebury knowing they wanted to major in geology.  This result strongly supports our impression that Geology is a “discovery major” that students encounter as they begin to explore the curriculum at Middlebury. 
  • Two thirds of respondents indicated that their introductory course inspired them to major in geology, which affirms our long-held policy of offering multiple entry points to the major – currently we have five (Earthquakes & Volcanoes, Ocean Floor, Oceanography, Environmental Geology, and Dynamic Earth).
  • Although not all respondents had personal familiarity with the current Department curriculum, about three quarters agreed that the department has sufficient depth and breadth in its course offerings.
  • More than half of respondents indicated it was extremely important that lectures and corresponding labs in the Geology Department were taught by the same faculty member, providing strong support for our adherence to this teaching model (which is not followed by most other sciences at Middlebury).
  • Nearly every respondent conducted a senior thesis and an overwhelming 75% of them agreed “very strongly” that the thesis was a valuable part of their geology education.
  • Approximately one third of respondents studied abroad, and of these slightly more than half strongly agreed that their study abroad experience was a beneficial part of their Middlebury experience.  However, there was less unanimity about whether their study abroad experience was a beneficial part of their geology experience.
  • Respondents felt that the advising they received a Middlebury was useful in charting their trajectory within the Geology Department.  However, there was less agreement on the value of advising in terms of post-Middlebury career.  This assessment is echoed by current students with enough frequency that I’m considering convening an alumni panel to provide insight into job-hunting strategies, possible employment opportunities within the geosciences, etc.  I may be in touch with some of you about participating in this effort.
  • Finally, 86% of respondents enrolled in a graduate program after Middlebury.  50% received a M.S. degree, and slightly more than a quarter received a PhD.  Not all of these advanced degrees were in the geosciences, however approximately one half of respondents are currently working in geoscience or in a geoscience-related field.

I appreciate this tremendous response from our alumni, and wish to remind all of you that the Department now has a Facebook page which we try to update with announcements and pictures of students and faculty in the field.  If you have not already “liked” us online, I encourage you to find the page on Facebook at Middlebury College Geology Department.

In terms of other alumni connections, Middlebury will once again offer an alumni gathering at the annual GSA meeting.  If you are planning to attend the meeting in Denver, please stop by and say hello on Monday, October 28 (Hyatt CCC, Centennial Ballroom D-E, 7-9:30 pm).  And, for the first time ever, we would like to formally gather with alumni at the Fall AGU meeting.  If you are planning to attend the meeting in San Francisco, please email me and let me know so that I can send you details once we put a plan together.

Back on campus, we continue to have an enthusiastic and vibrant group of students majoring in geology.  Our number of graduates each year continues to average approximately ten, enrollments in all our classes remain steady, and the Department continues to support basic scientific literacy through our popular introductory-level classes.  Jeremy Shakun ’03 returned to campus last January to teach a Winter Term course on climate change that was extremely popular and successful.

Supported in part by the College, we have seen rising numbers of students attending professional conferences.  A highlight of this past year for students and faculty alike was the Northeast GSA meeting in March.  The meeting was held at the historic Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire as part of the ongoing celebration of the GSA’s 125th anniversary.  Possibly due to the attractive location – across the street from the Bretton Woods ski area! – we had a record number of student attendees.  The culmination of the meeting was a group dinner for 23 faculty, current students, and recent alumni at the Moat Mountain Smokehouse in North Conway.

To honor our graduating students last spring, we hosted an open house in the Geology Department for graduating seniors and their parents.  Posters from the NE-GSA, VGS, and Spring Student Symposium were displayed around the room and students appreciated the opportunity to explain the results of their hard work to their families.  The Department looks forward to hosting a similar event next May.

Department facilities and instrumentation continue to expand in ways that improve teaching, faculty research, and mentoring of students.  The most obvious example of this is the R/V Folger, which quickly became a fully functioning asset of the Department last year.  The boat was used extensively until deep in the fall semester, and was out again for weeks this past summer.  A highlight was the alumni college class over Labor Day weekend.  Another exciting development is the new luminescence laboratory that Will Amidon is building in BiHall.  Luminescence refers to a collection of related techniques for determining the time since quartz and feldspar grains were last exposed to sunlight.  It is a well-established dating method for Quaternary studies applicable over timescales of centuries to a few hundred thousand years.  Will took the lead in designing the lab space and acquiring the instrumentation, and work is underway to calibrate the analyzer and develop sample processing protocols.  Once the system is up and running it will offer the capability of in-house geochronology that will be useful in a variety of classes and projects.

Finally, the year also featured two reviews and a major award.  Will Amidon successfully passed his third-year review in the fall of 2012.  I was promoted to full professor in the spring of 2013.  And in late May I learned that I had been selected as the inaugural recipient of the Gladstone Award Honoring Excellence in Teaching from the College.  This award was established by parents of recent graduates to support faculty in the pursuit of innovative teaching and research involving students.  More details of what I am doing with the award can be found in my personal update.

I hope you enjoy this summary of what happened in the Geology Department over the past year.  As always, please keep in touch.  You can reach me directly at geology_chair@middlebury.edu.

Best wishes,

Jeff Munroe, on behalf of the Geology Department

Department of Geology

McCardell Bicentennial Hall
276 Bicentennial Way
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753