February 2020 Issue Table of Contents
Mineralogy in the Digital Age
The digital age has transformed the ways by which we live and work. Surprisingly, it is still challenging to agree on a general definition of what digital really means. There is a telltale picture taken by film director Stanley Kubrick in 1946 of people in the New York City (USA) subway. In this picture, almost all the commuters are looking down and into their newspapers. If you now replace the newspapers with smartphones, then the scene might have been shot on a subway today. But there is at least one crucial difference between the two pictures: information density. A newspaper holds only a few tens of kilobytes (kB) of information, whereas a smartphone can hold up to a terabyte (TB). This is six to eight orders of magnitude more than a newspaper. Furthermore, almost all the exabytes (260) of information by humankind has become accessible to us via the internet and through our smartphones. In combination with apps, this vast amount of information is structured and tailored to all our various daily needs. This is the power and attractiveness of digital: the vastness of the information has been condensed, structured, and made accessible through digital devices such as smartphones. Hence, if we use computers solely for calculations – their initial purpose – this is not what we mean by digital.
The first digital geochemistry content was created ~30 years ago with databases such as GeoRoc, GeoRem, MetBase, GeoRef, and so on. Such databases fall into the definition of digital, because if they aggregate content and make it accessible. However, although many databases have been excellently maintained over the decades, their web interfaces have often not concomitantly evolved.
The quantity of new results, data and information is exploding. This is highly welcome, but the steep increase of new data is a challenge to keep up with and to work with – and more so for future generations of scientists. In response to this challenge, recent US initiatives, such as EarthChem and EarthCube, have started to develop digital tools to structure Earth science–related data and to make these data available for research. Similarly, initiatives such as RDA, IGSN, re3data.org, and FAIR try the same for research data in general on various levels. The recent call for a national research data infrastructure (NFDI) issued by the German Research Foundation, costing up to €900 million, now tries to integrate Germany into these international efforts. The goal is again to densify information and make this information accessible in a structured and digital way.
The digital transformation also includes teaching. The most promising format is the “flipped classroom” or “blended learning”, in which students watch videos and use interactive content at home, which is then deepened during in-class time. The videos should be tailored thematic learning videos with individual lengths of about 5–10 minutes; these are combined with specific tasks and subsequent questions. The following in-class time with all students and the lecturer is essential to clarify open points and set what has been learned into overarching contexts, thereby allowing for a much higher learning level. The students are highly active during the in-class sessions, not passive as in traditional lectures (Fig. 1). The students themselves appreciate the in-class time, because it allows them to interact with their peers and to reflect on their learning progress in relation to them.
The so-called “Humboldt education ideal” means that research should be directly part of teaching, and vice versa. During 2019, we (at the University of Cologne) developed a cosmochemistry platform that aspires to translate the Humboldt education ideal into the digital age. To achieve this, the platform consists of three elements: (i) MetBase, the world’s largest meteorite database, for which we developed an entirely new web-interface to quickly access, visualise and analyse data; (ii) a comprehensive “resources section” that can be used as an online cosmochemistry course; (iii) a “cosmochemistry papers” section which aggregates the entire cosmochemistry literature on a daily basis. These three elements constitute a single platform (https://metbase.org/), which are detailed below and focus on the cosmochemistry course.
The Cosmochemistry Research and Learning Platform
The MetBase Database as a Research Platform
MetBase is the world’s largest meteorite database and has been in existence for almost 30 years. We recently ported it to an entirely new technical foundation. It is now possible to access MetBase with any device that can run a web browser. Data can be filtered, selected and visualised in various plots or on a map, and also be exported. The data references are reported alongside the plots. An additional database holds an extensive literature archive. The main focus of MetBase is currently on bulk chondrite and component data. Further additions, such as isotope data, are in the works. Only this part of MetBase has been commercial before, but finally moves to a “pay what you want” model, including a free of charge option. However, MetBase continues to rely on voluntary financial support.
A New Approach to Digital Learning: the Cosmochemistry Online Course
Teaching typically follows a linear path, fixed by a semester schedule, course schedule or similar. “Blended learning” typically also follows a linear path: students watch the videos in a given sequence. A textbook also has a linear structure but is much more flexible and can be read in an explorative way: you can start with any preferred chapter, and simply look-up specific parts required to understand that chosen chapter. Such an explorative reading method is the idea for a new approach of blended learning on which our cosmochemistry course was developed. It is, however, still possible to also offer the students the option of following a traditional linear path.
Explorative learning works in the following way. The web interface contains a comprehensive pool of assignments (an assignment being a given task that the student needs to solve) (Fig. 2). To solve a typical assignment, the student needs to watch between two and five videos. Individual videos are typically 5–10 minutes long, research having determined that seven minutes is an ideal length. Each video comes with a large set of additional information and tools: an accompanying text summarises the most important content in the video; a number of links lead to (i) review and multiple-choice questions; (ii) downloads of various materials (e.g., figures, data); (iii) the literature used for the video, plot and so on, as well as further reading; (iv) a feedback form for suggestions, new video topics, etc. In addition to the material that accompanies each video, further content is provided, such as a cosmochemical glossary, a mineral database and more. Assignments can make use of the MetBase meteorite database, which is only one click away. This approach establishes a direct link between research and teaching: the students can use the available visualisation tools to ask questions, and try to get answers from the database using the tools. After the learning process, which partly requires researching, the student solves the assignment with a brief text, video or audio, which is checked by the lecturer.
This explorative learning empowers the students to focus on their own individual interests. More assignments are available than required to complete the course, of which a subset is mandatory. This ensures a common basis of knowledge that is deepened with a selection of individually chosen topics.
The subsequent in-class time might take place on a weekly in-house basis or via conference software, should the course be cross-regional or international. Here, the students solve complex tasks in groups, which connect the various topics of the videos, leading to an overarching understanding of broader concepts. Many years of experience have shown how this approach reliably leads to lively and intense discussions among the students. In summary, this explorative learning approach offers an active, explorative learning with a direct gateway to a research database.
Dale Carnegie (1888–1955, American writer and lecturer) used a three-fold conceptual construct for his presentations. He said, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.” This three-fold repeat presentation of information is still seen as a successful recipe today, but it is an approach in which students remain passive. I, therefore, suggest a modified “triple-jump” whereby the teacher builds the course from the student’s view: “Think about which assignment you want to solve, solve it, then (together with others) connect your solution to an overarching framework”. In this modified “triple-jump” approach, the students are actively engaged from the very beginning. The teacher becomes a mentor, guiding the students through the discussions during the in-class time rather than teaching in front of the class.
On MetBase, the section for the course is labelled “Resources”, because it has been set-up as a comprehensive resources section that can, under the guidance of the teacher, be used as a course. Currently, the Resources contain >100 videos, 15,000 words, >500 questions, >500 linked references, >150 downloads (such as figures, tables, notebooks) and >400 entries in the glossary and mineral database, respectively. All materials (videos, figures, data, etc.) have a Creative Commons licence 4.0 BY–NC–ND, i.e., these materials can be directly used for the downloader’s own purposes. The entire Resources section is available in English and German.
Cosmochemistry Papers: A Blog Aggregating the Daily Cosmochemistry Literature
The third element of the cosmochemistry platform is a highly successful blog that has now been running for a couple of years. This blog aggregates all new cosmochemistry articles on a daily basis. Title, authors, digital object identifier (doi) and abstract of each new article are presented in each blog entry. This blog was previously published under https://cosmochemistry-papers.com and has now been added to the platform.
A Possible Future Of Digital Research And Learning
The platform is now in version 1.0, and it has huge potential for the future. New content is continuously added (check @CosmoPlatform on Twitter), because not all topics are yet covered. In future iterations, specialists in specific sub-fields could contribute their particular competence. Interviews with well-known researchers could be added. Researchers could make and post videos about their own publications. An isotope database and a database containing fundamental standard and reference data are in preparation. Videos could also include tutorials for analytical instruments or laboratory instructions/use, and much more. From experience, such instructional videos are highly beneficial to first-time equipment users.
The platform and its back-end technology are open to everyone who would like to contribute or add a new topic/course. Support and/or contributions of any kind are cordially invited – please contact the author. The technical challenges are smaller than one might imagine, and technical support can be provided.
The cosmochemistry platform can be explored on https://metbase.org. The research data, including tools, can be found under “Research”. The material, with which the online courses are realised, is under the section “Resources”. And the blog with daily cosmochemistry literature is under “Cosmochemistry Papers”.
No one seriously wants to go back to, or could imagine, a world without structured access to all available data. The digital age unleashes all its disruptive energy each time the traditional concepts are replaced by original new approaches that harvest all the possibilities of the digital age. Research and teaching are commonly seen as two sides of the same coin. The new digital concepts are placing these two sides next to each other, overlapping each other in a way not hitherto possible. The Humboldt education ideal of research and teaching can now be realised in a much more lively way than ever before.
My deepest thanks go to all co-workers of the MetBase Cosmochemistry Platform. This project would not be possible without you! Many thanks to Premkumar Elangovan, Jörn Koblitz, Andreas Morlok, Lucia Halbauer, Simon Ziesel and Daniel Becker. Part of the project was made possible through financial assistance of the German Mineralogical Society, the University of Cologne and a teaching award to the author (DH).