May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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    [susan kidwell]
    Susan Kidwell (standing at center) leads a group of undergraduate students on a field trip to Jamaica.

    Susan Kidwell, Professor in Geophysical Sciences

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Like fossils, only a precious few ideas leave long-lasting impressions.

    Chicago students have quarried ideas from paleontologist Susan Kidwell’s classroom since 1985. And if her 1999 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching is any indication, Kidwell’s ideas have earned a prominent place in the museum of their minds.

    Kidwell, Professor in Geophysical Sciences, still receives compliments from students who took her Physical Sciences 110 course three years ago. One of the students recently told her, “I liked that course because it was obvious you were really trying to accomplish something with it.”

    The comment prompted Kidwell to wonder if she had come across as though she had an agenda. Then she realized she really did have an agenda: enlightened self-interest.

    “Scientists do not have many opportunities to tell a captive audience why we love doing what we do, how we think, and the different ways of knowing that the sciences provide,” Kidwell said.

    “I want future congressmen to know something about science in general and about earth sciences in particular. And I want those future lawyers and nonprofit professionals and business executives, as well as voters in general, to have as broad a perspective as possible about how the Earth works and the interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere.”

    Kidwell strives to convey to undergraduates the value of science both as a purely intellectual enterprise and as a practical one. Concepts such as deep time, represented by Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, are fascinating issues in and of themselves, she said. Yet the earth sciences also contribute to society through the study of global climate change, the origin and maintenance of biodiversity, and issues as local as coastal erosion and water supplies.

    Upper-level undergraduates and graduate students bring a pre-existing interest in the subject matter to Kidwell’s other classes, Principles of Stratigraphy (the study of stratified rock layers), Taphonomy (how the fossil record forms) and Topics in Biosedimentology and Stratigraphy.

    “But even there, I find that teaching at the phy-sci level has improved my teaching at the 200 and graduate level,” Kidwell said. “It reminds me to do the same things that I make such a concerted, explicit effort to do at the phy-sci level. That is to help the students see the forest and not just the trees––the issues and the controversies, the larger questions that we are trying to understand.”

    To learn the kind of geology Kidwell teaches, going into the field is essential. In the field, students can handle rocks or map them within an area of a few square miles. Alone and with colleagues, Kidwell has taken students on weekend, spring break and summer field excursions to Midwestern states, Utah, Arizona, Montana and Jamaica.

    “On some of these trips, we have a mixture of everyone from first-year undergraduates who are just taking introductory geology to senior graduate students in one class, all out there asking questions and learning together,” Kidwell said.

    Once in the field, students find out just how different rocks can look from what they have seen in the laboratory or in textbook photographs.

    “No matter how many hand specimens you examine in the lab, they’re almost always perfect for their type,” Kidwell said. “Once you get out into the field, nothing looks right at first. So one-on-one tutorials right there on the outcrop are essential to students building the skills and self-confidence they need to go off on their own. To the inexperienced eye, normal rocks can look totally nondescript.”

    Nevertheless, these often plain-looking rocks hold a complex archive of information from which scientists reconstruct the history of the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and life forms. Kidwell sees it as her job to describe the broad sweep of this 4.5-billion-year archive for students in terms they can understand, yet retain the challenging complexity of its mysteries.

    “I think what makes anything interesting is its complexity,” she said.