Tanya Atwater

University of California, Santa Barbara
2002 DTS Award

Dr. Tanya Atwater
Professor of Tectonics
Department of Geological Sciences
University of California, Santa Barbara

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Tanya Atwater

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

In lower division lectures I present and explore the most beautiful examples I can find for each phenomenon - giant crystals, beautiful slide images, the most pleasing map presentations, the most vivid visualizations I can muster. Of course, I also insist that they read and learn the basic material and I keep a running feedback going to reinforce this: "question of the day" each lecture, term papers, lab reports, tests. I also believe in the crucial importance of personal, "hands on" experience and have revamped the labs to be more fun and to include more field experience.

My goal with our non-major students is to instill life-long curiosity and interest and caring for the earth. I hope to get them to choose to read geological articles in the paper, to choose nature programs over a sit coms, to view earth problems as problems that are interesting and vital, that deserve their attention.

In upper division and graduate classes, I am primarily trying to help the students prepare for their professional lives. I still include my passion (can't help it) but it is only a reinforcement of a passion most of them have already. My specialty, plate tectonics, is an excellent vehicle for bringing together disparate information from their other geo-classes and for constructing a broader mental order - a world image. I also include many activities in these classes that develop important skills: map interpretation, literature searching, paper writing and critiquing, cooperative learning, oral presentation.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I feel a profound delight in, love for, reverence for the natural world. My parents gave me this gift of passion and my goal is to pass it on to as many minds as I possibly can. I believe that caring involves deep familiarity and understanding. Thus, my job as a geoscience educator is to help as many students as possible to know and understand and respect our planet, i.e., to help them really care about it and act on their caring.

Were there risks in doing this? What made you persevere?

In lecture, I used to think I wasn't a good scientist if I admitted my passion. No more. In the last few years I have adopted a style of expressing my delight along with sharing why I'm delighted - the intricate order and sense (and, sometimes, irony) of how things work - wonderful!

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

A great many visitors stopped over at Scripps while I was studying and working there. They came from all over the world and stayed for weeks or months and shared their insights in seminars and over lunches and dinners. It was so exciting, there were so many new connections to explore, so much to be done, I often could not sleep at night. We would meet in the morning to try out our overnight inspirations, or sometimes we couldn't wait and would call and get one another up in the wee hours. The excitement has died down some over the decades, but this is still one of my favorite aspects of my work: exploring ideas with colleagues, scribbling on the dinner napkins, each of us bringing her/his own data and knowledge and experience to the subject at hand, inter-meshing our disparate expertise and constructing something brand new, feeling a new idea grow and clarify in our minds and our sketches.

I also take my earth-love "crusade" to the larger community whenever I can manage it. I regularly present lecture-slide shows for many civic and school groups (and often get invited back for more). In recent years I've been concentrating on K-9 teachers in the belief that this is the best way to reach the broader future citizenry. I feel great respect for this hard working group of teachers and I love their energy and fun and insight. It is a pleasure to teach/empower them about earth subjects and to help them figure out engaging ways to pass on their new knowledge.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

What is the project you are undertaking as part of your DTS award? How can others be involved?

The goals of this project and the goals of my teaching goals are to instill as much understanding as possible of the way the earth works, and also to convey my own love of the beauty, excitement and rigor of the scientific endeavor. In recent years I have experimented with the creation of multi-media visualization products for the understanding and teaching of earth subjects. My initial animations and movies have met with great response, and are used in numerous classrooms at the University of California-Santa Barbara, across the nation and around the world. I believe a major portion of the human population learns best from imagery, especially moving images, and I am very excited about the new multi-media tools that make this form of communication so much more possible.

Moving imagery is especially useful and helpful for the teaching of geology, since the subject is so visual and is often far outside ordinary human scales of time and space. I am presently refining regional geological animations and materials for southern California. Through the current project I am expanding the geographic reach of this work by creating an Educational Multimedia Visualization Center for visiting teacher-scholars. The center allows experts in the geology of their own regions/disciplines to bring their traditional images and knowledge, and to transform them into animations and presentation packages. They return home with these products and also with a new array of skills to share around their own institutions.

Their imagery products join my works that are already out in film, videotape, as freeware on the web and as materials in the NSF-funded digital libraries of ADEPT and DLESE. Indeed, the ADEPT group is based at U.C.S.B. and is interested in developing a streamlined process for transferring content generated at the Educational Multimedia Visualization Center into their online holdings. The Multimedia Visualization Center is building upon the long experience and excellent infrastructure of this organization, extending its services to off-campus visitors. Thus, visitors return home with their own projects and also with new ideas about instructional support possibilities. Likewise they share with us the innovations of their home institutions that we may learn from them and pass them along.