Last month, I looked at some rocks at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes. Rock collections reflect the motivations of the collectors, first and foremost. Qualities within the collected stones speak to the collector’s position on what gives a rock its worth. The rarity of the mineral, complexity of the represented geological process, or preservation of an intricate structure all participate in the appraisal process of the “serious” rock collector.
There also exist collectors who notice rocks for more transparently aesthetic reasons. My first introduction to rock collecting as a child regarded the collection of “friendship rocks” – a smooth (cherty?) rock, I remember an adult explaining, that fit perfectly in your hand between the thumb and index finger. Kid rock collectors tend to remove expectations of deep geological meaning and focus on color and form as junior pebble aesthetes. In Vermont, glittery micas embedded in schists and phyllite catch the eye of wanderers in the Green Mountains; in St. Louis, flecks of quartz embedded in sidewalk concrete perform the same function for city dwellers. People tend to associate beauty with geology according to assumptions made about what is more natural and interesting – a jumble of rocks of disparate origin shoring up a highway overpass doesn’t tend to captivate rock hounds in the same way as a fossiliferous limestone outcrop to which has been ascribed 450 million years of deep history.
In certain ways, these aesthetic priorities reflect our unwillingness to acknowledge our role as humans in shaping geological processes in the present. As the movers and shakers of the Anthropocene, we’ve been messing with the surface of the earth for thousands of years. To find concrete beautiful, even terribly, is to begin to reckon with this legacy.
Or, they just reflect what we like. My rocks at home include pieces of smoothed glass and unremarkable sandstone. I have a piece of wollastonite that started rapidly weathering when I nested it in a houseplant and can’t bear to release it because it represents a memory.
Sifting through the library rock collection, it’s apparent that local rock hounds are captivated by the stories hidden in the earth below. Jumbles of clay concretions, ugly shards of limestone, ammonites, and perfectly polished marble slabs coalesce to form a local narrative. The beauty, monotony, fascination and silliness of rock appreciation persists
I had a profound experience this week. So, as you know I have been speaking about looking at teaching STEM subject matter from a perspective of pointillism. To reiterate and example, think of teaching physics, were each concept is a dot. As in pointillism, a collection of dots form shapes. As one takes in more shapes and image starts to appear. Well, each concept taught is a dot. The question is can the students take in the collection of dots to make connections such that they see at the end of the semester, the picture is in fact, Physics I.
Well in class we were talking about conservation of energy. When we solved the equation for final velocity, I paused and showed them how you could get the same equation from one of the Kinematic Equations. They were so surprised; this was when I thought it would be a great time to introduce the pointillism concept. So I explained to them they need to look at each thing we learn as a dot in a pointillism picture. Each chapter teaches something that builds upon the previous chapter. In other words, you should be trying to see the “big picture.” It is not uncommon for a physics problem in one chapter, utilizing a concept taught in a previous chapter. If one looks at a problem on only considers the points made in the current chapter, it should be no surprise when a student gets stuck. They are trying to explore how the current chapter’s equations (concepts), applies to this problem. All the while, the problem relies on concepts from previous chapters, that must be used before you get to the part where you utilize the current chapter’s concepts.
When you look at physics like you look at physics as you would look at “A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte", by Seurat, you would see other concepts when you are looking at a given problem. Then, a solution may not seem so elusive.
As I gave this analogy, I demonstrated my point by drawing a bird on the board using pointillism. As I made dots for the upper beak, I said, “these are the dots talking about the position.” Then I made a collection of dots for the lower beak, “These are the dots for kinematics,” and so on, and so on. Eventually, I had an entire picture of a bird. I was going for a dove; they said it was more a duck/penguin. Oh well, they got the point.
To my surprise, a student came for tutoring and referenced my analogy when she was trying to solve the problem. That was very validating that we may be on to something here!