Tuscaloosa--Most students taking Geology 101 have set their post-graduation sights elsewhere--restaurant management, political science and healthcare, for example. But officials at the University of Alabama hope their new state-of-the-art Visualization Center will make students take a second look at geology as a career.
"A lot of people refer to it as "rocks for jocks"," says U-A geology professor Andrew Goodliffe. He says his field is in dire need of a facelift.
"We're not really selling ourselves as a department. What we're trying to do now is actually show the students some of the technology that is available in geology. We're not just people who look at rocks."
To that end, the University of Alabama recently unveiled the Visualization Center -- equipped with about $60,000 worth of technology, dubbed GeoWall. It's not all sophisticated-computers, 3d glasses. But the showstopper is a pair of digital light projectors that make images of volcanoes and earthquakes pop off the screen.
Teaching assistant Joe Chandler is taking students through a virtual fly-through of the Mariana system - an area from Guam to the southern islands of Japan where active volcanoes are forming. Three-dimensional visualization, often used by car and airplane designers, is also helpful for identifying flood-prone areas and predicting volcanic and seismic activity. While more than a dozen universities in the U.S. use the Geowall program, it's typically reserved for upper-level geology students. Goodliffe says, why save the good stuff for last?
"We've taken a different philosophy. We're actually giving this to our nonmajor classes, Geology 101, where we have a lot of business students, that sort of thing in there. And those are the sort of students that don't have the visual skills that a geologist will have."
Goodliffe says with the GeoWall program, he sees fewer eyes glazing over in class.
"The image that we showed of the Mariana system where the earthquake's going down with depth, I've tried to teach that many times, and the students...just don't get it. You get a lot of nodding heads and you say, "Do you understand this?" and they go, uh-huh. They don't. But one of the great things sitting in on that lab, I saw the students really did get it."
Perhaps the real hidden gem in geology is jobs.
"The job outlook is very strong for graduates in geology, particularly for U.S. students."
That's Larry Nation, spokesman for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
"Overseas there are a lot of students that are majoring in geology, however in the U.S., geology, petroleum geology in particular are needing students.
Nation says oil companies are aggressively recruiting geology graduates, some are even offering cash bonuses. Fueling the demand is the high price of oil. Professor Goodliffe says oil industry recruiters approach him weekly looking for geology graduates
"A lot of our masters students are getting oil industry jobs. It's one of the side effects of $3-a-gallon gas."
Brittney Holland is banking on that strong job market. She's a freshman and one of a few geology majors in the class.
"There's a lot of things that need to be found and discovered so we can understand how things work better and I think geology's going to help explain, a little bit more, this is why this is happening or how we can avoid it or get out of the way, if it's a natural disaster, or we can help stop erosion, or whatever. I'm a faily optimistic person. I think we're headed in a good direction."
-- Gigi Douban, Sept 1, 2006