Computers & Geosciences, Volume 24, Number 4, 1998

Michelle Lamberson
Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences
University of British Columbia

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204 Michelle Lamberson, University of British Columbia, holds a PhD in Geology and is the liason between faculty who produce content and a wonderful mix of students who do a lot of the html'ing and graphics. My experience is that unless you have a Michelle you aren't going anywhere real quick and when you get there you find you are further behind then when you started!

Check and you will find more than 30 course resources that have been produced by the teams.


Sound familiar? This is probably the most common cry of the faculty member! Somewhere between advising graduate students, raising research funding, serving on umpteen committees, and and possibly doing some research - you are supposed to be the most up-to-date, dynamic teacher on the planet. That of course means you have to have the coolest, hippest, most interactive web site around. Where do you get the "extra" time to do this? Hmm... sleeping is over-rated , isn't it?

At The University of British Columbia, I have been involved in internet resource development since January, 1995. My job has been to create, and to assist other faculty with creating learning resources for the internet. "I don't have time for this" is a phrase I have heard on more than one occasion. I strongly believe, and my experience has shown, that our best resource is our students. I can honestly, and with no hesitation, say that there is now way we could have accomplished what we have at UBC without the help of the 27 students who have contributed their expertise to our efforts over the last 3 years. Our team, which is commonly composed of 4 - 6 undergraduates working part time at any given time, write code for exercises and databases, design web sites, draft figures, write HTML, photograph rocks and thin sections, scan countless images - you name it, they have done it.

Students, for the most part: are extremely interested in technology; are more aware of the latest developments in technology than you have the time to be; have little or no fear of computers; and are willing and to learn new technologies because it's fun, and it gives them a competitive advantage in the market place. I also believe that they they enjoy being provided the opportunity to help their fellow students learn. Does this mean that each of them knew anything of web development when they started? No. These students have represented a variety of disciplines, including: biology, geology, geophysics, geological engineering, geography, history, math and computer science. What they have had in common is a willingness to learn, coupled with a fascination with technology.

How is the work organized? We approach resource development using student-faculty partnerships. Faculty that are interested in developing a resource are partnered with one or more students; they work together to develop an interactive resource (e.g., tutorial, exercise, tool, database) and a course web site. This approach provides a "kick start" on a web site maintainable by the faculty member in the future, and adds to the departmental educational resource base. The apprenticeships are mutually beneficial: the students bring needed technological skills and a set of helping hands, whereas faculty provide content and guidance to the students.

By working with students from more than one discipline, we are able to draw upon different strengths; students can learn valuable teamwork skills. For example, three people were involved with building our virtual reality modeling language-based interactive model of accretionary shell growth). Paul Smith, our palaeontologist, Jessica Clark-Chant, a 3rd year undergraduate earth science major, and Stewart Austin, a 3rd year computer science student. Jessica researched the available web-related content material and wrote a lot of the background pages. Stewart adapted an existing piece of code that Jessica found on the internet, while Paul vetted and approved the content.

The most important reason to seek help from students is that you are involving them in the educational process in a new way. Suddenly, they have total control of their learning environment. They may need assistance at the start to find the tools they need to accomplish a task, but they learn very quickly. This learning is not limited to technology. Computer Science students learn computer programming for the real world. Geologists strengthen their grasp of fundamental concepts; upper level students are clearly capable of putting together basic learning modules for lower level students. In a sense, you are providing them the opportunity to teach, and the old adage holds true: the best way to learn is to teach!

How do you go about getting student help? Ask for volunteers - some students will help by translating class notes and such simply for the experience. However, your best bet is to look for financial support to pay students to do the work. It illustrates that their contributions are valued and emphasizes the seriousness of the task they are undertaking. Most educational institutions have "work study" programs where the department pays a a small portion of the salary and government grants cover the remainder. Many institutions have internal granting bodies to provide funding for technology-related projects. The National Science Foundation provides funding opportunities to enhance undergraduate education.

So! If you are hesitant to get invoved with technology because it seems to be an insurmountable cliff.... don't be afraid to ask for help from you students. Once you see what they are capable of, you'll wonder why you waited so long!

Since September 7, 1998

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