The Canary in the Coal Mine: Frank Granshaw on Glaciers and Geoscience Education
In 1998, Frank Granshaw, glacial geologist and climate science educator, inventoried and studied the impacts of glaciers in the North Cascades National Park complex. It was the first inventory since 1958.
The North Cascades National Park complex represents 25% of the glaciers in the contiguous United States and is a vital source of water for nearby residents and ecosystems that depend on glacial runoff. Despite their importance, these glaciers had remained largely unexplored for decades. Although glacial changes frequently appear in headlines and are often used as the primary indicator of increased global warming, these changes can have local effects that often go unnoticed.
Granshaw has since conducted further research and created educational materials for geoscience students. He earned his doctorate in geology and geoscience education at Portland State University and is now an adjunct faculty member there, where he teaches geology to undergraduate students. 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 glacier geologist?
My undergraduate degree was in physics and psychology. In my thirties, I planned to go back to graduate school for education. My main grip has always been being a geoscience educator. When I went back there for my first master’s, I was told, “You’re going to have to do 30 hours of science at the graduate level”. I thought about doing physics for about 15 minutes, then decided to do geology.
My association with geology comes from my mother. When I was 8 or 10, she asked me if I wanted 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 away and did other things, and then in my early thirties I was like, “Maybe I should go back and do that.”
So I got into geology as a geoscience teacher, and later, when I was about to get my second master’s degree, I thought, “I’m interested in glaciers, so let me see what I can do.” Luckily, in the Portland State Department, we had a glaciologist who just joined us. Then I talked to him and it stuck. This is how I came into the association with glacial geology.
How did you get into teaching specifically? What prompted you to move from geology to teaching?
It’s a long-standing interest. When I said that I had studied physics, it was actually secondary education in physics. The big project was therefore to become a high school physics teacher.
Obviously, this is not the path I have chosen. When I left the undergraduate cycle, I stood still for a few years, then I started to reorient myself towards science education by working in science museums. I worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, then I started working for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
I’ve always enjoyed that combination of being able to work with people and helping them figure out some of the nerd stuff that I find so interesting. I also had the opportunity to do exhibition development as well as program development and found that I really enjoyed it.
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] somehow touched on it. What prompted me to become more active in advocating for climate education was the experience of having my granddaughter sitting on my lap falling asleep and wondering what her world in 2050 or 2060. Similarly, my teaching career has worked with undergraduate students as a whole. And so I have the same experience with them. What will their future look like? What kind of choices are they going to have because of what we’re doing now?
How have you experienced the changes in the teaching of earth sciences?
I have seen the politics of geoscience education change a lot. The geosciences department where I did my graduate studies tended to be very conservative. In geology, your choices were to go into academia or go into extractive industries. Environmental geology and climate issues were dismissed as fluff. And this is no longer necessarily the case. We still have people who are very entrenched in industries, but even some of them have a different view of their industries.
The other thing is that there’s a lot more openness to inquiry-based learning. In other words, give students a chance to explore rather than “Here, sit down and I’ll fill your head with content for the next two hours.” There is a better understanding of motivation and attention to process. And I really appreciate that kind of change.
Have you tried to make a specific shift towards inquiry-based learning and are there other changes you have tried to make in your development of teaching materials?
Well, I’m definitely still on the learning curve of how to talk less and give students more time to explore. It’s hard because there are students who want to have traditional lectures and think that all this inquiry-based stuff is a bit absurd.
The quest at this particular point is how do I make the development I’m doing more of a cooperative project. There’s actually a type of inquiry-based learning that I call guided inquiry. It’s important to give students a scaffold because they often ask themselves, “What do you want me to do to get the grade I need in this course.” Like it or not, students are assessed in ways that impact their future. And so it behooves those who want to encourage students to learn through inquiry to give them a scaffolding so that they can succeed in it.
How have your experiences studying glaciers and geology influenced the way you develop your teaching materials, in particular your Climate Toolkit, which provides activities and experiments to help non-scientists do their own climate research?
I think it gave it more meat in some ways. I say this from the perspective that, as I said, my first master’s degree is in teaching and my second is a master’s degree in geology. From my experience during my first master’s degree, I met people who specialized in science education who did not necessarily have a solid scientific background. They had very strong educational backgrounds. And many of their criticisms of the way science is taught were pretty sound in some ways.
But I think if you can find those rare cases where you have someone developing a program that has both good science and good education/psychology background, that makes for a richer mix. I became a teacher first and then a researcher. Many undergraduates do the opposite: they first become a researcher and then a teacher by trial and error. I found that by first stepping in as a teacher, research informed what my program development looked like.
Have you ever met climate change deniers who teach undergraduate students?
I meet them. I spent 25 years teaching at a community college, teaching earth sciences in general. Even in climate science classes, I meet people who deny climate change. I remember a case of civil engineering students always trying to trip me up. I had good discussions with them from time to time.
Every once in a while you have people there because they’re trying to prove it’s a bunch of hooey. I would say a lot of people are there because it’s an issue they care about. But then you have people who are sort of fence keepers, and then you have the climate change deniers trying to get ammunition to bolster their cause.
Interestingly, with all the evidence out there, many people, even those who have studied climate science, still believe it’s not real.
I think it’s partly because any time you engage in science there’s a level of uncertainty. I think of some people I know who have spent their lives in the [extractive] Industries. It’s a tough psychological struggle to conclude that you’ve spent your whole life in an industry that may be 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 the opportunity, if you will, to go in the direction of climate deniers if it helps protect their self-esteem.
One of the tragic aspects of our current political climate is that it is not the people who have spent their lives working hard who should feel regret. There are some downsides to using fossil fuels – national parks exist because people can easily drive there. It was a good thing for a while, but we have to change now. It’s like too much water in your basement. Water is a good thing, but not when it’s leaking from your basement.
Is there anything else you would like the general public to know about glaciers?
In academic research like my master’s thesis, one question is always, “Who would care, beyond people who like to look at glaciers or climb them?” My master’s thesis supervisor asked me to try to track the summer runoff from the North Cascades glaciers and when the peak flow occurs. We have found that peak flow occurs earlier in the year [than it used to]. And again, who the hell would care? The answer is fruit growers on the east side of the Cascades who rely on glaciers that don’t release their water until the driest parts of the year. Glaciers are the canary in the coal mine. This has always been the big deal whenever Ice Geeks talk to the general public. Glaciologists talk about a large part of people’s watersheds and their entire water balance. So yeah, there are practical sides to all that woolly-headed academic stuff.