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Geologist Elisabeth Ervin-Blankenheim is Showing Us Why Geology Matters

Elisabeth Ervin-Blankenheim on horseback.
Geologist Elisabeth Ervin-Blankenheim.

If you’re one of the lucky few who are students of geologist Elisabeth Ervin-Blankenheim, you might take a virtual trip to the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to study the other-worldly fossilized Carboniferous forest that has been preserved in the rocks there. Or, you might be asked to write a research paper about coal and climate issues, and ponder concepts such as the time it takes geologically for coal to be created versus how quickly we burn it and use it up.

For Ervin-Blankenheim, a geology instructor at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colorado, sharing knowledge and information with her students is just one of the ways she is working to promote understanding of geology and its importance in addressing global issues such as climate change. The AAAS Member is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in science education and geologic literacy. She also has a book due to be published in summer, 2021 called, “A Song of the Earth: Understanding Geology and Why It Matters,” a biography of the Earth that delves into the development of the planet. The book explores how life and Earth have influenced each other, and the current existential threat posed by climate change.

“That’s why I’m pursuing a doctorate in scientific literacy, mainly geologic literacy, and educational research, because if we can reach the students, I think we can have a larger impact on what’s coming down the pike in terms of climate,” says Ervin-Blankenheim.

Ervin-Blankenheim says her students inspired her to start writing “A Song of the Earth” in 2016.

“My students are so interested in geology no matter what field they’re going into; they seemed to want to know more,” she says. She applied for a grant to the Sloan Foundation but was informed that, while they were interested, she’d need to have a signed publisher’s agreement before she could be considered. She searched for an agent online (“I think my search terms were ‘geology’ and ‘agent’ and ‘nonfiction,’” she recalls), and amazingly, connected with an agent who had been looking for a geologist to write about geology.

Her agent helped her get a contract with Oxford University Press, which allowed her to resubmit her grant proposal to the Sloan Foundation in August 2019; a few months later, she was awarded the grant.

The grant, says Ervin-Blankenheim, made a tremendous difference, and enabled her to hire a biologist and paleontologist to review sections of the book and an illustrator to “take my rough drawings and make them gorgeous.”

The work she did for her book also led to her current doctoral research, focusing on how instructors and professors in geosciences are teaching the fundamental concepts of geologic time, plate tectonics, and evolution, and what challenges they are experiencing.

“I realized I wanted to go further and bring the book to life,” she says.

Ervin-Blankenheim's love for science and teaching are passions that developed early in her life. She comes from a family of teachers — her mother and sister both teach horseback riding, and her brother teaches engineering and robotics —in 6th grade, she had a teacher who sparked her love of science, she says.

Ervin-Blankenheim eventually joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia in the early ‘80s, working in a program that was regulating underground injection wells for oil and gas and doing work to protect groundwater. From there, she went on to work as a hydrologist in the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) in the New Jersey district office where, among other things, she helped complete a massive project evaluating the water quality of 300 groundwater wells on the coastal plain of New Jersey. It’s still referred to as a seminal paper in the coastal plains of groundwater quality, according to Ervin-Blankenheim. She also worked in Colorado and Nevada for USGS, including the Yucca Mountain project (the proposed repository site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste) on ground-water flow and flow in fractured rocks.

After she had to retire early because of an illness, Ervin-Blankenheim and her husband moved back east to help her grandmother. During this time, she realized how much she missed geology and decided to pursue a license in geology. She describes the process as a huge undertaking that involved a lot of preparation and a rigorous exam. The work paid off and Ervin-Blankenheim passed, becoming a licensed geologist in 2006. But, it was in being asked to co-teach the review class for licensure that her next career emerged. The prep course company recruited Ervin-Blankenheim as a teacher — a job she held from 2006 to 2018.

“That was when I really started to teach,” she recalls. “We used to travel across the country and teach these review classes about twice a year to anyone who was going to sit for this exam… I just loved it and it brought me back to my geological roots.” In 2015, Ervin-Blankenheim started teaching geology at Front Range Community College.

Ervin-Blankenheim plans to work in science policy, once her doctorate is completed and says that one of the biggest challenges for geology is to help people understand the role that it plays in people’s lives and the deep interconnection between the Earth and humans. Geological lessons from the past biography of the Earth can inform the challenges the planet is facing when it comes to global climate change. She wants to make geology accessible to the public and policymakers, beyond the boundaries of jargon that can impede understanding.

“As part of my research, I analyzed dictionaries in chemistry, physics, and geology, looking at the number of words we have in our specialized field,” she notes. “So, say for example that there are 5,000 words in physics and 4,000 words in chemistry in a particular dictionary; in geology, there are 10 times that, something like 40,000 words. We have terms for every rock, every mineral, every process, and it can turn people off because they don’t feel like they’re understanding it, and it’s hard.”

In addition to the important work she is doing to promote geology, Ervin-Blankenheim is supporting science, particularly AAAS.

Of the many scientific organizations in the United States, AAAS was one of the first and remains one of the most influential,” she says. “I’ve decided to leave a significant part of my estate to AAAS because I believe so much in the mission of trying to do outreach and help people understand science, and I think AAAS is best situated out of all the scientific bodies to carry forward the message of scientific literacy.”

Ervin-Blankenheim knows there will always be trials in the future when it comes to advancing science, but she takes nature and the environment as her nourishment when faced with challenges.

“I tell my students to go out in the field… and take sustenance from our connection to the Earth,” she says.

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