As another K-12 school year closes out, teacher Sheldon Marsh spoke with The Telegram, marvelling at the steady rise in the number of students electing to take his class.
Marsh teaches Earth Systems at Holy Heart of Mary high school in St. John’s, a course touching on a range of geosciences.
“When I came out as a geologist, I worked with PetroCanada. That was in 2000,” he said. “When I got here … there was only two slots of Earth Systems and that was about 68 students. The following year, we went to three slots with 93 students. This year we went to four slots of 120 students. Next year we’re going to five slots, close on 150 students.”
In the same time period, there has been no jump in total student population at the school, with 925 students at Holy Heart in 2008, through to 920 in the past year.
Marsh said there has traditionally been “a lot of students” taking other science courses in their final year, like Biology 3201 or Chemistry 3202, “but the numbers are really growing in Earth Systems.”
Part of it is incentive, since if a student gets more than 80 per cent on the Earth Systems public exam, they can apply for two university credits at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) heading into their first year.
Yet he also contributes the interest to growth provincially in the resource sectors.
“With all the offshore oil, that’s certainly a component of it. I mean a lot of students, their parents, in some way or another, directly or indirectly, are linked to something that’s taking place,” he said, adding mining projects like the hydromet facility at Long Harbour have made a difference.
A re-vamped curriculum for Earth Systems, first introduced on a trial run last year, has also been popular and time-efficient, he said. The course now concludes with a section on geoscience in the resource industries.
The course also offers a unique worldview, Marsh said.
“In human time, 80 years is the average life expectancy of a human. But our planet is believed to be 4.54 billion years (old) and to get the kids thinking that way, compared to how we normally think on a daily basis, is definitely very, very curious for them.”
A geologist and executive director of the Johnson Geo Centre, Adele Poynter, said that kind of curiosity is what she and her staff want to see more of in this province — particularly in the junior high and high school set.
“Science doesn’t fit well into a culture of sound bites and celebrity,” she said.
“On the other hand, we have seen a lot here that gives us great hope that the public is curious about their natural world.”
The Geo Centre looks to foster that curiosity. Their work was given a boost in late April, with a $2.3-million donation from the Hibernia Management and Development Company. The funding is going towards a new exhibit on resource development and more interactivity at the centre — digital apps for your phones and tablets, for example. There will be more science camps, but long-term science clubs are also to be introduced. The centre will also be adding to its list of public programs and more films will be brought in to the centre theatre.
Poynter said reaching young people throughout the province has been a challenge. To that, the Geo Centre is partnering with (national non-profit) Let’s Talk Science (www.letstalkscience.ca) on outreach projects using SmartBoards, TeamBoards and video conferencing.
Opportunity for education
Much of what is being added, in public programming and school-based programming, will be aimed at the junior high and high school-level age group.
“We have not really been able to do that here until now, because we only had the resources to develop school-based programming up to Grade 6,” she said.
Exhibits and programs are designed to offer something to all ages. A public presentation on the Mars Rover, perhaps falling under the centre’s partnership with MUN, is one example.
Poynter said, at this point, anything that adds to the public’s understanding of our natural resources and how they can and are being developed is particularly valuable.
“I think for geoscientists or any scientists right now — they’re excited because energy and mineral resources are driving the Newfoundland economy,” she said.
“On the other hand, very few people really understand much about them.”