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Out of love?

TedSmithMapResized.jpgAugust’s Soapbox (Geoscientist 23.07) has kicked up a merry storm over the suggestion that the traditional undergraduate field mapping project might have had its day (see Letters and this month’s Soapbox).  Academics have protested, and industry geologists queued up to affirm that experience in the field is any geologist’s most prized possession, and that far from watering it down, universities should be doing all they can to beef it up.

Concern over the fieldwork content of undergraduate courses, and of the quality of the contact hours spent in the field, underpins the Society’s highly successful accreditation scheme.  Some might say that it was that scheme’s primum mobile, and remains an important reason why any student who emerges qualified from such a course need answer no more questions about his or her education when applying for Chartership.  But, more viscerally, I struggle to understand why someone would want not to map.

I recently paid a nostalgic visit to the Isle of Man (the southern third of which I mapped for my degree). This experience revealed several things.  First, mapping for nine weeks during the glorious summer of 1976 was simply my happiest time.  This may explain why what I learned there stuck: I could still recall those three phases of folding, to a level of detail in outcrop that amazed me.  The pleasure of being able to predict what I would find on a mountainside, if my structural model was correct, gave me a satisfaction I have rarely equalled.  I remember pitying – not too strong a word - students whose courses did not allow them the chance to immerse themselves in their subject so completely.

But here’s the thing.  The subject may want fieldwork, but do students?  In my time, love of the countryside drew us to geology in the first place.  We were all outdoorsy; we already had the boots and most of us were hikers or climbers.  We knew how to conduct ourselves.  We tended not to fall over and break limbs.  We had been stung by bees long ago, but didn’t make a habit of it, rarely suffered from allergies and never went into anaphylactic shock.

I look askance, and even suffer occasional Daily Mail moments, over what I suspect is a pallid, indoors generation that we are breeding.  I worry that geology is moving out of its true laboratory and into a virtual fairyland.  But I worry most that the young may be falling out of love with nature; and if they are, whether they will ever want to study geology at all.

Dr Ted Nield FGS