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Montana State University geologist wins national prize for Web site to improve education

Montana State University

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- A Montana State University geologist is part of a team that has won a national award for a Web site they created to improve undergraduate education.

David Mogk and three collaborators from other institutions won a 2009 Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) for their Web site, titled "On the Cutting Edge." The Web site was one of 12 winners from nearly 100 entries. An essay in the Feb. 26 issue of Science says "On the Cutting Edge" transformed the culture of geoscience education by promoting the sharing of scientific content and teaching methods.

"That was a nice recognition. It came out of the blue," said Mogk, a professor in MSU's Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.

"This prize means a lot to us," added project leader Cathy Manduca from Carleton College in Minnesota. "This Web site is a community effort with contributions from hundreds of faculty. They have been willing to invest time in sharing their teaching expertise with others. This prize is important recognition for all of us that this work is valued by the scientific community."

Mogk, Manduca, Heather Macdonald at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and Barb Tewksbury at Hamilton College in New York launched their Web site in 2002. Manduca said they created it because they care about geoscience education and they love to learn. Knowing that good teaching makes a difference, they wanted to contribute.

"Geoscience brings important understanding to the problems civilization faces today, from deciding whether or not to live in a coastal plane to finding petroleum or the rare earth elements needed for solar panels, to international efforts to live sustainably on the Earth," Manduca said.

Mogk said the Web site developers had been offering workshops individually, but they realized the benefits of working together. The team originally focused on the geosciences, but they now assist faculty in many disciplines.

Teachers go to the site to learn the latest scientific information and emerging themes in their fields. They share teaching tips and advice about managing their careers. They post classroom activities that worked well for them. They take online courses to enhance their teaching. They go online to review information they learned at face-to-face workshops developed by the Web site creators.

"On the Cutting Edge" -- supported by the National Science Foundation -- now contains more than 4,000 pages and offers more than 1,200 ideas for classroom activities in several disciplines, according to the Science essay. In 2008, 550,000 visitors made more than 650,000 visits to the site and viewed more than 1.5 million pages. Of those visitors, 13,000 returned to the site at least six times.

"On the Cutting Edge" goes far beyond the core curriculum that most universities offer in Earth sciences, Mogk said. He added that teachers used to talk more about their research than teaching, but times have changed. "On the Cutting Edge" represents the move to student-centered learning and not only helps teachers improve their skills, but helps them work more efficiently.

"The idea is that if we provide the tools for faculty that improve teaching and learning, then students will have a better opportunity to learn," Mogk said.

Mogk, like hundreds of others who use "On the Cutting Edge," has posted units about successful classroom activities that he developed. One of those explains how he uses contra dance and other old-time dances to teach abstract concepts in mineralogy. A video that he prepared with students in MSU's School of Film and Photography shows Mogk calling a dance and the Broken String Band playing "Lady Walpole's Reel," while cameras follow dancers through their moves. One concept they demonstrate is symmetry, which many students "fear and loathe" before they dance it.

"The idea is that every dancer is an atom in an assigned atomic process," Mogk said. "If you do the dance move, if everyone ends up at their assigned place, you have symmetry, a perfectly ordered crystal structure.

"If you mess up, it's a crystal structure with a defect," he continued. "If you completely mess up, it's a melt down."

The SPORE award is the latest honor for Mogk, who is devoted to both teaching and scholarship. He received MSU's James and Mary Ross Provost's Award for Excellence in 2009 and many prestigious awards before that. In 2007, he was one of five geoscientists in the world to be elected a fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America. Mogk teaches mineralogy, metamorphic petrology, environmental geology and miscellaneous seminars. He researches learning, as well as the evolution of the ancient continental crust. This year, he is involved with six workshops affiliated with "On the Cutting Edge."

Science is considered one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals. The weekly magazine is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


To see "On the Cutting Edge," go to

To see Mogk's unit on old-time dances, go to

This article is available on the Web at

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