MHC's Dyar Rocks the Web

Posted: April 9, 2009

With three-dimensional, rotating graphics, innovative videos, and virtual laboratories, the study of ancient rocks and minerals has never looked so now.

Supported by two grants totaling $492,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a textbook on mineralogy written by Mount Holyoke's Darby Dyar, associate professor of astronomy, and Mickey Gunter, professor of geology at the University of Idaho, has captured 20 percent of the market just one year after its release. Part of the book’s appeal is the DVD included with each volume that features every image from the book, some in three-dimensional detail with animations.

Another is the fact that the lead author is a woman--a rare occurrence in the world of textbooks for advanced-level college classes, and one of Dyar’s prime motivations for starting the project ten years ago. “At a time when more women are undergraduates than men, it’s important to send a message that women can lead in advanced fields,” Dyar said. “The gender of textbook authorship sends a message that students pick up on--and it’s not as simple as just replacing a “crankshaft” analogy with one relating to skiing."

Now, the NSF has authorized funding for a second project to develop interactive, Web-based illustrations for introductory geology and mineralogy classes. Gunter and Dyar will share a recent $150,000 award with Laura Wenk, assistant professor of cognition and education at Hampshire College, to begin developing this material. They hope the mostly Web-based project will allow distance learning while keeping student costs low. Dyar is the lead investigator for the grant.

“We hope to develop two or three modules in the next year that deliver distance, interactive Web-based science,” Gunter said. “We want to incorporate virtual microscopes, virtual rocks, and virtual maps, so you can distance-deliver the material to place-bound people who can’t come to a university.”

The DVD featuring graphics is part of the reason why Dyar and Gunter’s previous book is so successful, and why the NSF has funded the beginnings of this second project. The other reason is its price.

To keep costs down, Dyar and Gunter had the mineralogy book published by a nonprofit publishing company. Students who become members of the Mineralogy Society of America, which costs $10, receive a 25 percent discount on the book.

With the current project in the works to be completely digitally driven, Dyar and Gunter hope it will be even cheaper for students, especially if it is entirely Web-based.

“Students with visual learning styles increasingly make up large parts of science classes, and curricular materials that capitalize on this type of learning are critical to the training of future generations of science and engineering students,” Dyar said. “Such materials are expensive to develop and implement, and we cannot expect the profit-driven publishing industry to support them. More and more professional societies are becoming involved in publishing educational materials, as part of the changing landscape of textbooks. NSF has several excellent programs to support development of educational materials, and I’d love to see more faculty members take advantage of them in creative ways.”

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