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The Canary in the Coal Mine: Frank Granshaw on Glaciers and Geoscience Education

In 1998, Frank Granshaw, a glacial geologist and climate science educator, inventoried and studied the impacts of glaciers in the North Cascades National Parks Complex. It was the first inventory since 1958.

The North Cascades National Parks Complex represents 25% of glaciers in the contiguous US and is a vital water source for nearby residents and ecosystems relying on the glacial runoff. Despite their importance, these glaciers had remained largely unstudied for decades. Although glacial changes frequently appear in headlines and are often used as the main indicator of increased global warming, these shifts can have local effects that often go unmentioned.

Granshaw has since conducted further research and created educational materials for geoscience students. He earned his PhD in geology and geoscience education at Portland State University and is now an adjunct faculty member there, where he teaches geology to undergraduates. In a recent interview with GlacierHub writer Aliyah Elfar, he discussed changes in geoscience education and the importance of glaciers in climate science and beyond.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to become a glacial geologist?

Frank Granshaw is a glacial geologist and geoscience educator. Source: Frank Granshaw/SERC

My undergraduate degree was in physics and psychology. In my thirties, I planned to go back to graduate school for education. My primary handle has always been being a geoscience educator. When I went back for my first master’s, I was told ‘You’re going to have to do 30 hours of graduate-level science.’ I thought about doing physics for about 15 minutes, and then decided I would do geology.

My association with geology comes from my mom. When I was 8 or 10, she asked if I would like to join 4H [a youth development program] and I said ‘We don’t live on a farm’, and she said ‘Well they have geology’, and so I joined 4H geology. I did that for about 10 years, went off and did other things, and then by the time I was in my early thirties I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back and do this.’

So I came into geology as a geoscience educator, and later as I went to get my second master’s I thought, ‘I have an interest in glaciers so let me see what I can do with that.’ Fortunately, in the department at Portland State, we had a glaciologist who just joined. Then, I chatted with him and it stuck. So that’s how I came into the association with glacial geology.

How did you get into education specifically? What prompted your switch from geology to education?

It’s been a long-term interest. When I said I studied physics, it was actually physics secondary education. So the grand plan was to become a high school physics teacher.

Obviously, that’s not the path I chose. When I left undergraduate, I popped around for a few years, and then started getting back into science education by working at science museums. I worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley and then started working for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

I always enjoyed that combination of being able to work with people and help them understand some of the nerd stuff that I find so interesting. I also got an opportunity to do exhibit development as well as program development and found that I really enjoyed that.

How has being an educator affected your feelings about climate change?

It’s something that’s always in the back of my brain all the time. The New York Times article [in which Granshaw was also interviewed] sort of touched on it. What pushed me to become more active in climate education advocacy was the experience of having my granddaughter sitting on my lap falling asleep and wondering what her world was gonna look like in 2050 or 2060. By the same token, my teaching career has been working with undergraduates by and large. And so I have that same experience with them. What’s their future going to look like? What kind of choices are they going to have because of what we’re doing now?

How have you experienced changes in earth science education?

I’ve seen the politics of geoscience education change a lot. The geoscience department where I did my graduate work tended to be very conservative. In geology, your choices were to go into academia or to go into the extraction industries. Environmental geology and climate issues were dismissed as fluff. And that’s not necessarily the case anymore. We still have folks who are very much entrenched in the industries, but even some of them are thinking differently about their industries.

The other thing is that there’s much more openness to inquiry-based learning. In other words, giving students a chance to explore rather than ‘Here sit down and I’m going to fill your head with content for the next two hours.’ There is improved understanding of motivation and attention to process. And I very much enjoy that kind of change.

Have you tried to make a specific change toward inquiry-based learning and are there other changes you’ve tried to make in your development of educational materials?

Well, I’m definitely still on the learning curve of how to talk less and give the students more time to explore. It’s tough because there are students that do want to have traditional lectures and think that all this inquiry-based stuff is kind of nonsense.

The quest at this particular juncture is how to make the development I’m doing more of a cooperative project. There’s actually a type of inquiry-based learning that I follow called guided inquiry. It’s important to give students scaffolding because they’re often wondering ‘What do you want me to do to get the grade that I need out of this course.’ Like it or not, students are being evaluated in a way that impacts their future. And so it behooves those who want to encourage students to learn by inquiry to give them scaffolding so they can succeed at that.

How have your experiences studying glaciers and geology informed how you develop your educational materials, particularly your Climate Toolkit, which provides activities and experiments to help non-scientists do their own climate research?

I think it has given it more meat in some respects. I’m saying that from the point of view that, as I said, my first MA is in teaching, and my second is an MS in geology. In my experience during my first master’s, I’d bump into people that specialize in science education that didn’t necessarily have strong science backgrounds. They had very strong educational backgrounds. And a lot of their critiques of the way science is taught were pretty sound in some respects.

But I think that if you can find those rare instances where you have someone who develops curriculum that has both a good science and a good education/psychology background, that makes for a richer mix. I became a teacher first and a researcher second. Many people in undergraduate do the opposite: they become a researcher first and then become a teacher through trial and error. I’ve found that coming in as a teacher first that the research informed what my curriculum development looked like.

Mt. Shuksan, a mountain within the North Cascades National Parks Complex, holds one of the 312 glaciers in the park complex. Source: Ron Clausen/Wikimedia Commons

Do you ever run into climate change deniers teaching undergrads?

I do run into them. I spent 25 years teaching community college, teaching general earth science. Even in the climate science courses, I bump into some folks that are climate change deniers. I remember one instance of some civil engineering students who were always trying to trip me up. I got into some good discussions with them once in a while.

Occasionally you do have people there because they’re trying to prove that this is a bunch of hooey. I would say a big bulk of the folks are there because this is an issue that concerns them. But then you have folks that are sort of fence-sitters, and then you have the climate change deniers trying to get ammunition to bolster their case.

It’s interesting that with all of the evidence available, many people, even those that have studied climate science, still believe it isn’t real.

I think part of it is that any time you engage in science, there’s a level of uncertainty. I think about some folks I know who have spent their life in the [extractive] industries. It’s a hard psychological struggle to conclude that you’ve spent your entire life in an industry that maybe is causing a lot of damage. I can understand that being older. You don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted your life. The uncertainty of science gives them room if you will, to go the climate denier direction if it helps protect their sense of self-worth.

One of the tragic things about our political climate right now is that it’s not the people who’ve spent their life working hard that need to feel regret. There are some flipsides to using fossil fuels -the national parks exist because people can easily drive to them. It was a good thing for a while, but we gotta change now. It’s like too much water in your basement. Water is a good thing, but not when it’s flowing up out of your basement.

Is there anything else you’d like the general public to know about glaciers?

In the context of academic research like my master’s thesis, a question is always, ‘Who would care, beyond the people who like to look at the glaciers or climb them?’ My master’s thesis advisor had me try and track summer runoff from the North Cascades glaciers and when peak flow happens. We found that the peak flow comes earlier in the year [than it used to]. And then again, who the heck would care? The answer is fruit farmers on the east side of the Cascades who depend on the glaciers not releasing their water until the drier parts of the year. Glaciers are the canary in the coal mine. That has always been the big issue whenever glacial geeks talk to the general public. Glaciologists are talking about a major part of people’s watersheds and their whole water budget. So yeah, there are practical sides to all of this wooly-headed academic stuff.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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