Spotlight
Faculty
Christian Shorey
Specialty: “Liberal Science” Education
There are a lot of people listening to Christian Shorey.

Last year, more than 900 undergraduate students took his course, Earth and Environmental Systems, and he’s taught about that same number each year since coming to Mines in 2005. And now that the entire course is available as a podcast, Shorey has hundreds, if not thousands, of people downloading his lectures around the world— he’s heard from grateful listeners in China, Australia, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Norway and South Africa.

Shorey hosts a special sort of classroom experience, as you’ll find out if you take the time to listen to the 63rd podcast, in which the Mines lecturer successfully wrestles 282 years of modern scientific advancement into an hour-and-twelve-minute-long lecture.

“My teaching philosophy is, if I’m fascinated by it, students are fascinated by it,” Shorey says, adding after a moment of hesitation, “Usually.”

Over the course of 23 lectures and weekly labs, Shorey leads his students on a journey from the atom to the mind of Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason is studied alongside metamorphic rocks, paleoclimatology, weather and biodiversity, to mention just a few of the survey course’s many topics.

A major goal is for students to understand what he calls the “geological time message.” “The rate of change that we’re seeing is unprecedented,” Shorey says. “Not only for humanity, but the planet.”

Another key message: “The planet is our sole source of resources; it’s our wastebasket and our life-support system,” he says. “So when you start looking at those first two—the resource acquisition and the waste and pollution issues—you need to start thinking about the life-support system more seriously.”

John Humphrey, head of the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, also teaches the course. He says SYGN101 “is a way for students to look beyond doing homework every day on calculus problems and see the world from a 30,000-foot view rather than through the microscope.”

While Earth and Environmental Systems may dabble in intelligent design and population dynamics, it is a geology course. And Shorey holds a PhD in geology. Fossilized shark teeth and geodes decorate his office walls and bookshelves, along with books on moon morphology, evolutionary geology, oceanography, genetics, invertebrate zoology and the human consciousness.

Shorey, 40, earned his PhD from the University of Iowa in 2002. His dissertation was based on his computer models simulating the growth of stalagmites. The models incorporated oxygen and carbon isotopes, the aim being to use the climbing daggers of calcium carbonate as data points for the study of climate change. Carbon isotopes hint at what sort of vegetation was on the ground above, and oxygen isotopes can provide clues to surface temperatures.

Climate change remains his forte. But, Shorey says, “I got the PhD with the goal of being able to teach.”

He began the podcasts in 2007, each hour-plus episode recorded in a single take on his office computer. The idea was to level the playing field for international students, but also to help traveling athletes and, as he described it, “slackers who don’t show up.” Slackers pay the price though: The podcasts span more than twice the material Shorey can squeeze into a live, 50-minute lecture.

Shorey, until recently a self-proclaimed “computer idiot,” is putting his internet broadcasting experience to work by creating a presence for Mines on Apple’s iTunesU, an area of the iTunes Store where universities share lectures and presentations. Shorey plans on using the site, which he is developing thanks to a $5,000 student technology fee grant, for posting high-definition videos focused on field techniques such as soil and water sampling and atmospheric measurements. At the same time, he’s creating broadcast infrastructure for other faculty and staff to use, and he plans on offering a seminar in the fall to teach others how to use it.

His final podcast of the course was just recently put online. It’s number 65 and is entitled, “The Future.” “It’s a message to my engineers,” he says. “I’ve just told you the problems. Fix them.”