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Geology Grad Student Wins National Teaching Award

Kelly Ferguson Honored for Impact and Assistance in the Classroom

Oct. 19, 2012

woman in pontoon sailing through a canyon.

Kelly Ferguson in the field.

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Spending hours in the classroom teaching upper- and lower-division geology classes to undergraduates has not only inspired graduate student Kelly Ferguson to consider a career in teaching, but also has given her national recognition.

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers has recognized Ferguson with its Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, a national award given annually to the best teacher assistants from around the country. She is one of four honored this year.

"It's a really good feeling to know that my integrity and passion for geology and for teaching shows through to my colleagues and mentors," said Ferguson, who is working toward completing a master's in geology. "My goal when I teach is to inspire students to look more closely at the landscape around them, to get out in nature and to ask questions. Hopefully this award is a reflection that I have succeeded, however little, towards this goal."

Ferguson has been a graduate teaching assistant for courses on physical geology and surface processes and hydrology, as well as at the Geological Science Department summer geology field camp in Montana.

"Teaching has solidified my own knowledge in geology and has forced me to view the discipline in a way that can be conveyed to students who are not necessarily inclined to the sciences," she said. "This experience also has greatly improved my presentation and communication skills, which will be invaluable to any future job I pursue."

Phillip Armstrong, professor of geological sciences and Ferguson's faculty mentor, said Fersuson is always well prepared for the classes she teaches and provides extensive feedback to students.

"Kelly has high integrity and brings to the class an extremely approachable demeanor that students thrive on and learn from. She has a background that includes a sense of adventure — born from years of river raft guiding and outdoor experiences."

Ferguson has been conducting research with Armstrong, using rock-dating techniques that record how fast rocks are being uplifted toward the surface of earth on geologic time scales of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. She has been conducting research on two large and bear-infested islands in the scenic Prince William Sound area of southern Alaska.

"This area is extremely important to understand because it is located above where one plate is subducting under another, similar to the geologic scenario off the northern California to British Columbia coast of North America," Armstrong explained.

Her field area is the site of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded — the magnitude 9.2 "Good Friday" earthquake in 1964, which sent tsunamis down the West Coast, Armstrong noted.

During that earthquake, one of the islands she is studying was thrust up nine meters, or nearly three stories, in one minute, he said.

"Kelly is trying to evaluate that sort of uplift over much longer time scales so we can more thoroughly investigate the history of such large uplift events," Armstrong added.

The research work has given Ferguson hands-on experience in her field of study and inspired her to push herself academically, she said.

"To be a contributor to the understanding of how our planet works is a pretty cool thing and I feel honored to have been chosen to do this work."

As an added bonus, her research has taken her to some out-of-reach, remote areas of Alaska that few people get to see. Her work has included days of helicopter and boat-supported fieldwork in extremely rugged and scenic terrain.

Ferguson has had the opportunity to collect samples via helicopter on snow-capped peaks in the Prince William Sound, joined fisheries' biologists in a jet boat up the Copper River and watched glaciers calve.

"One of the best things about geology research," she said, "is that it has the potential to take you to some awe-inspiring places!"

Ferguson credits her geological science faculty members for helping her understand the full scope of an in-depth research project and seeing it through to fruition.

"Dr. Armstrong pushes me to ask questions and is usually working right alongside me in the lab. His hard work and integrity alone are inspirations to me and have helped advance my goals. He and other faculty, including Dr. Jeffrey Knott, Dr. Brady Rhodes and Dr. David Bowman, have all made themselves available to my questions and openly give me advice about my career and academic goals.

"I think the best way these faculty members have helped advance my goals in geology is by being good role models."

By: Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

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