Close to Normal: Geosciences
On and off campus, student researchers find common ground
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Brady Ziegler teaches class on camera

In 2020, the students and professors in Trinity’s classrooms are as close as they’ve ever been.

Not physically, for obvious reasons. A global pandemic has de-densified campus, spreading students six feet apart—and beyond, as parts of campus operate remotely—and pushing classrooms into new digital spaces.

But the strongest ties still connecting Tigers are the ones at the heart of the University: those formed in the classroom. Each of our classes has become its own community. We’ll show you why class—of all things—is the new highlight of everyone’s week: because it’s just about the closest thing to “normal” we can all get right now.

From Dust to Data

Geosciences professor Brady Ziegler, like many Trinity professors, is adjusting to a classroom that has been partially scattered to the winds.

The 41 students in his Earth's Environmental Systems class, run as a “TigerFlex” hybrid course, are divided into two groups. About two-thirds of his students attend class in person, and a smaller group of remote learners currently spread across Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and even Italy.

“I want everyone, even those that have to hop on through Zoom, to feel like they’re invested,” Ziegler says. “It’s important for me to get people who feel like they’re stuck at home integrated into the class.”

Brady Ziegler makes a concerted effort to balance his attention between in-person and off-campus learners

Ziegler says his students are studying an “introduction to geology with an environmental flair.” They’re examining how earth materials interact with humans, from contaminants in groundwater to how flooding affects infrastructure. They’re also thinking about the scientific evidence of climate change.

In his classroom, Ziegler also has inclusion down to a science. He starts each day with the little things, like taking small pauses when asking questions that let students at home have a chance to respond. “My remote students are chatting regularly now,” he says.

This philosophy extends to Ziegler’s pedagogy. He uses the “jigsaw method,” where students split into groups to learn new material and then teach each other by assembling the material piece by piece. 

“I’ll have one student looking at plate tectonic boundaries, another looking at earthquakes, another at volcanoes or sea floor age. Then we come together as a group to combine our data and see what’s going on,” Ziegler says.

The payoff of this type of community-building shows in a unique research project the class is working to complete. The group is currently examining the elemental content of street dust in San Antonio. The fact that some students aren’t in the city might be a challenge for some classes. But for Ziegler, an inclusive mindset has turned this obstacle into an opportunity. He has mailed sampling materials out to his remote students, who are taking data from their own areas to use as comparative data for the research.

“For any good scientific study, we need a control,” Ziegler says. “So if we’re going to say anything about the quality of street dust in San Antonio, we need to be able to say something about the quality of dust outside San Antonio. So those people who might be ‘stuck’ at home, now they’re invaluable to the work we’re doing.”

Geosciences professor Brady Ziegler leads a socially distanced class on campus

In addition to those scattered across Texas, two of Ziegler’s pupils are joining in from California and Pennsylvania. He’s even got a student in Italy, but the jury is still out as to whether mailing a soil sample across national borders constitutes a violation of international law.

“He might be exempt from turning in his homework,” Ziegler says. 

Eventually, the entire class will be able to work with a large data set in order to find any patterns they can. “It’s fun because this is real research with real questions that haven’t been answered yet,” Ziegler explains.

It’s a small consolation for not being able to meet in person, Ziegler says. But with enough creativity and dedication, the classroom can bridge even continent-sized rifts.

“All attitudes are strong at this point. Everyone is very much engaged, including those at home,” Ziegler says. “Those students are just as apt to stand up and answer questions as anyone else. I’m trying to minimize the feeling of ‘otherness’ they might experience. It’s a matter of just treating them like they’re actually there.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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