It Ain’t What You Do (But The Way That You Do It)

Chairing a session at a scientific meeting has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages is that you miss out on a half day’s worth of talks (at least, you do at GSA, where the sessions last a half day; they’re shorter at AGU). Although I got to see some cool stuff this morning, I can’t help but feeling as if the meeting’s passing me by and I’m stuck where I am.

Being a chair (or co-chair in my case) has its advantages, too. I get to digest a lot of information on one topic, presented from diverse points of view. For example, in our session yesterday, we had representatives from the USGS, the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the British Geological Survey alongside staff from nonprofits doing outreach, people teaching high school and middle school kids, folks teaching online in Second Life, and lone geologists in geography departments. The projects were all exciting, there were some great visuals, and a whole bunch of new ideas.

In fact, it seemed like everything was new, just finished before the conference. Only two talks showed much in the way of statistics to illustrate how effective their projects were (at disseminating information, in those cases). I’m hoping that by the time the virtual globes session at AGU rolls around this year, there will be more testing and validation, and less of a need to impress the audience. Sure, it’s great to be wowed by new technologies. But do they work? Do they, for example, improve spatial cognition in undergrad geoscience majors the same way that field work does? Are they effective at reaching a broader segment of the population? How do we measure this?

Here’s my challenge to people who presented in our Digital Innovations sessions (myself included): start measuring. I think we’ve convinced people that what we’re doing has potential, and that we can do all kinds of great things with virtual globes, the web, blogs, etc. But like the song says: it ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it – that’s what gets results. I think we ought to take some cues from geoscience (and physics) education, in that our way forward now probably should have some evidence of results.