A petrophysicist/geoscientist leader of the American Geosciences Institute explores the rocky and fascinating terrain of education, technology—and the future.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As the Executive Director of the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), Allyson K. Anderson Book leads the nonprofit federation of geoscientific and professional associations that represents more than 250,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other Earth scientists.
Previously, Allyson held senior roles at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and ExxonMobil Exploration Company in Houston, Texas.
A member of the National Petroleum Council, a federally chartered advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Energy, she also serves as a member of the Advisory Committee to the Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
She has also served on many other volunteer, professional outreach and education committees through professional geoscientific organizations, and is also currently an adjunct professor and Energy Scholar at Georgetown University’s Science in the Public Interest Program. She was a student/researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey and earned a Master’s degree in Geology from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis in 2000.
Founded in 1948, the not-for-profit Alexandria, Va.-based AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in the profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society’s use of resources, resiliency to natural hazards, and interaction with the environment.
In this interview, Allyson drills down into the core of AGI’s mission, her own journey to the center of a STEM career field, inspirational people along the way—and how on Earth students, teachers—and even edtech companies—can stay inspired.
Thank you for your time today talking with EdTech Digest readers, Allyson! What is the core mission of AGI?
Allyson: The American Geoscience Institute is an organization that represents the view of the science community by providing collaborative leadership and information on Earth, science, and people. That is quite literally our mission and it’s something that we re-committed to very recently as I came into the organization.
We sat down and really thought about where are we at 70 years—and where do we want to be in 70 years?
We have always focused on collaborative leadership and really pulling together our federation. We’re a federation of 52 member organizations plus another dozen affiliated societies that are regional and international.
In total, we represent about 250,000 people here domestically in the United States, which is a lot of professional community.
Having that collaborative leadership is really why we’re here.
Fascinating work you do! It gets people outdoors, it gets people looking at the planet that we’re standing on.
Any remarks or reactions about the field that you’ve chosen for your passion, or has your passion chosen this field?
Allyson: I got started in a completely non-geoscience field and came to this pretty accidentally.
My specialty area is really on the skin of the earth.
I got interested—first of all—from exposure to a really amazing educator as an undergrad, who inspired me very greatly to consider some field work.
In going out and doing field work—that was a moment for me where I thought, it’s the beauty that you see out in nature. It’s seeing how people and places and the geography all interact with the Earth itself. It makes for a really amazing thing to study.
That ties in this year with one of our big focus areas:
Earth as inspiration.
I was inspired by the people who were in the sciences. And then, by just being out in a field setting.
Maybe not everybody has that experience—but for me—that was the big underlying motivator.
It’s fabulous, such a great profession to be in!
You’re relatively new to the role of Executive Director at AGI. What focus are you bringing to the organization? And maybe that ties in with what you just said, but go ahead—
Allyson: When you look back at 70 years of AGI, some of our members are over 100 years old.
We look at them and think they’re pretty old, but in the big picture of geologic time, what’s 70 years?
We think on the millions scale, right? But 70 years for people, that’s a lifetime. We’ve had a lifetime of AGI and where we’ve been is really that collaborative leadership piece.
Oftentimes, we’re right in lockstep with how society is moving and changing. But when you think about the last 70 years and everything that’s happened, we’ve had somebody go to the moon, and now we’re thinking about commercial space flight, right?
That’s geoscience and technology right there, okay?
We have a lot of people that think about planetary science and look at satellite and Earth imaging and that piece of it. We have this deep technological component, but oftentimes people only think about the geosciences as people who study rocks and dirt. My family for a long time thought I just dug holes in the desert! I did, but that was a really minor part of the work that I used to do.
My focus right now is getting people to see that the geosciences are a very dynamic profession to go into.
The next 70 years for us is not sitting and watching time go by, but to anticipate where we’re going to be going and what a critical role geoscience plays in our world’s future.
You can pick a topic, whether it’s anything from landfill waste to natural hazards to an ever-changing climate.
There’s a range of topics that we think about that are all geoscience focused, and they’re totally relevant for the success of modern society.
That’s the future—and that’s what I’m trying to bring here to AGI.
You’ve rubbed elbows with Sally Jewell—have you talked to, say, Elon Musk? And are there any other interesting scientific people that you’ve associated with?
Allyson: We have done some work with Google in the past.
With our program Earth Science Week, we work with Google and people over there to develop maps and things to illustrate different concepts that we want to convey to the general public.
Maybe we don’t necessarily sit down in a room with Elon Musk, but we sit down with some pretty key influencers in the broader community, and Google is one example. Esri is another and some of these bigger focal companies.
Certainly over the last 10 years of my career, I have sat down with some major thinkers in terms of geoscience in the policy sector. I worked very closely with big-thinking people who shape national and international policy. I’m not one who likes to namedrop particularly, but these are folks who work very hard on behalf of the American public.
How is AGI using technology to provide specific tools for teachers, students, parents, and others to increase public understanding of the importance of the earth sciences in all of our lives?
Allyson: On the technology side of things, as we look at Earth Science Week, we’re trying to develop educational curriculum materials that can engage people in different ways.
Where we’re going in the future is more on the tech side of things. When you think about how you can make 3D models, there’s a lot you can do on a 3D printing site if you want to explore ways of displaying meteorological data over a big swath of the city. Like, where do you get the most rain? You could display that in a three-dimensional model using 3D printing. That’s a totally different application that not that many people have used thus far.
We’re actually transforming parts of our organization. We’re going to be using some 3D printing technology, and we’re going to be looking at online resources to make the geosciences more accessible to the public. Something that we’re really thinking about in particular is the use of technology in helping people who are color blind, who are deaf, who are autistic—folks who can’t get out to the field because they can’t walk.
We’re really looking at using technology to bring a field setting to them. We’re trying to actually use technology to make this approachable for everyone.
How is AGI using technology to promote excellence more widely in the geosciences and areas such as policy, workforce development, and information services?
Allyson: One of the core things that we’ve been working on—on the technology and computing side for a very long time—is really our flagship product: GeoRef. This is a database of all of the geoscientific research that’s being done worldwide that we catalog.
GeoRef is something that we work pretty hard on. We actually have a library in our building, and we work with libraries across the U.S. and around the world. We catalog all of the geoscientific research that’s done globally.
We have four million references in this database.
Anybody who does any kind of research across the geosciences, if they want to find out what’s been done historically on that science—any part of it—they’re going to use that to help them find their way.
Like, has this been done before? Should I be working in this area? It’s a fundamental information technology we produce that is really the foundation of geoscientific research.
Some of the other things that we do using technology are in field applications.
One area that we’re piloting right now with a partner is using some camera technology to go out in the field and produce virtual field trips.
That’ll be something hopefully that we roll into Earth Science Week, which we celebrate each year.
That is really heavy in the technology space because a lot of our Earth Science Week partners are people from places like NASA and Howard Hughes Medical Institute and many others that are very technology focused.
There are some other areas where we bring in technology, but it kind of comes throughout everything that we do, even in how we build K-12 curricula that gets placed in public schools.
Could you share a little more about the message behind AGI’s new “Earth as Inspiration” film series?
Allyson: Earth as Inspiration is something that we started talking about a year-and-a-half ago as we were coming into the 20th year of Earth Science Week. We were really thinking about, what is a topic that would be very engaging that everybody could relate to?
As we sat around the table and we thought about why were we in geoscience, we were all inspired in some way by the Earth.
As I had a chance to really get to know [former U.S. Secretary of the Interior] Sally Jewell over the last few years, I found she is someone who really embodies this deep in her core.
So with respect to the Earth as Inspiration, I see that what truly motivates people is that they love the natural setting.
And with Sally Jewell, she lives that.
I look at her and I find her inspiring. She is a deeply inspiring woman when she is out in the field and I couldn’t think of another person who embodies Earth as Inspiration more than her.
What past highlights of yours have informed your current approach at AGI today?
Allyson: As I have looked at different parts of my career, things that come up over and over again are the human aspect and the interplay with geoscience. What I like and how it’s relevant with education and technology is that in everything that I’ve done, education’s been part of it.
When I was at Exxon Mobil, I was working on petrophysics, and I got to teach some petrophysical classes while I was there. I loved seeing people’s faces light up as they thought about their science a different way.
When I was working for a member of Congress, I was leading briefings to help other congressional staff come to geoscience in a meaningful way and really see that geoscience can influence policy in sectors that don’t seem like they would have science in them.
In every step, I always look at that educational piece.
In my last job I was a regulator, and again there was that interplay between people talking about geoscience and how we use it in the real world, and that was the most technology-focused job I’ve ever worked on, because it was thinking about offshore drilling rigs and producing oil and natural gas.
In my current role at AGI, it’s really the culmination of all of those experiences. It’s about interacting with how people think about science, how they can use it in a meaningful way to impact how they live in their daily lives, and how they’re making policy decisions about where we’re going as a society. That all factors in to what we’re doing here at AGI right now.
We crafted a new vision statement that I’d like to share with you.
I hope that AGI can foster a world that understands and trusts the role of geosciences in finding creative solutions for Earth and humanity.
That’s where we’re going.
That’s what I’ve learned.
And I hope that we can really embody that right here at AGI.
How else would you talk to teachers and educators and people that are at technology companies, which support education? What sort of message would you like to communicate to people passionate about edtech?
Allyson: As it relates to geoscience, I would say that you want to get hands-on and really use technology to let kids be kids in the classroom and do a deep dive into exploring science.
For a technology company, anything that they’re going to produce that will inspire a student to think and engage about science is worth their time and investment.
I have a youngster at home, and she took a computing camp on 3D printing. And I was amazed at the excitement when she came home, that she could write code and then sit down and produce a lucky cat, a little 3D printed lucky cat that’s actually sitting on my desk.
Seeing that excitement come out of a classroom is really amazing.
She might not have thought about code if she hadn’t had that experience where she got to produce something really cool in the end, right?
And the same applies for what we do in geoscience.
I would just encourage companies to think more broadly about how they can develop technology that can be used in the classroom or in a field setting or anything that inspires kids to think.
Broadly speaking, what do you think technology’s role, what is technology’s role in education?
Allyson: It’s to enhance the educational experience.
Nothing is going to take away from that human interaction between an inspiring teacher and students.
Certainly if technology can be additive—and make it easier for a teacher to teach pretty complex concepts—that’s going to make it easier for the kids to engage.
Technology should really enable.
It should never replace that inspiring teacher who sits in the classroom.
Together they’re a superpower, though.
Any trends or emerging trends in tech that AGI is keeping a close eye on?
Allyson: Yes. A lot of what we are trying to do here is look at how you can use Asynchronous Learning to enhance education.
If you can provide on-demand courses in a variety of ways that people with different kinds of disabilities can access, that’s a way that technology really moves the ball forward. It also helps people who are out in the profession stay fresh in what they’re doing.
Asynchronous learning is a really big focus for us. We have something called the Geoscience Online Learning Initiative where people can go online and take courses any time they want on a variety of subjects.
That’s a pretty new part of what we’re doing, and it’s going to be growing a lot in years from now.
So that’s one.
The virtual field trips I mentioned, that’s going to be very exciting when we get to roll some of those out. That’s photogrammetry, that’s 360-degree imagery, high-def rotatable images. That’s very fun. Our team here really gets excited and “nerds out” on that, so it’s a little bit of a playground for us, too. We have fun with it.
Virtual Reality. We have so many partners who are using VR, and I think we will start to use that in a more meaningful way in the next few years, as well as augmented reality. We’ve got a pilot project on that underway, and I can’t say much about that, but stay tuned for the future. If the pilot is successful, maybe we’ll see it in national parks near you. There are a lot of different ways that we’re trying to use technology here.
The last one, 3D Printing. A lot of what we study in geoscience is very small. Imagine if you could build a bigger model of something that people could actually touch. You can’t find this tiny microorganism and really study it unless you have a microscope. Let’s say you were blind. If you could feel that 3D reproduction of a really small object, it might actually have meaning to you.
So that’s another way that we’re looking at using technology here.
Anything to add or emphasize or that we didn’t really cover, or more about the future of education?
Allyson: I would like to add on one thing.
It’s always dangerous at the end, right, to add on something?
Something that I will say that I think a lot about—and we think a lot about here—is the future of geoscience education in the classroom.
It comes up every now and again where people will think about which sciences should be taught in the K-12 space. I will always make the case that they are all equally important—and they should all be taught.
When you look at geoscience, historically there has been a bit of a debate about the idea of certain things like, is the Earth round? That was the debate for a long time. There’s still something called the Flat Earth Society, where people want to debate whether or not the Earth is round. It’s unequivocally round because you can see that from satellite imagery.
There are other people who want to teach other ideas on how old the Earth is, or whether or not it was created, or if it evolved—and that piece of it.
I think it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that science is not a belief.
We want there to be factual geoscience discussed in classrooms across America.
In thinking about how we approach education for geoscience, we just have to remember that we want it to be fact-based, we want it to be in classrooms across America for everybody.
It’s not consistent across the U.S., and I just want to raise awareness for readers who might see this.
This is a really important topic for us.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org