Through the long lenses of digital SLR cameras, Dr. Marli Miller’s students train their eyes on the lines and colors of the natural world. Her “Geophotography” seminar, first taught in conjunction with the Geology of National Parks in Fall 2012, allows students an imaginative and aesthetic entry to the scientific study of the earth. “It’s geology on the sly,” Miller said. “Students develop an intuitive understanding that geology is everywhere.”
Miller and her collaborator and co-teacher Ann Craig, associate director of pubic programs at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, bought 11 high-quality cameras with an Instructional Program Grant from the Tom and Carol Williams Fund for Undergraduate Education, which supports UO faculty seeking to “renew, broaden, restructure or develop classes that more actively engage students in the learning process.”
Pointing to one student’s photograph of delicate green sprouts in dark rock, Miller explained how fluidly the course moved from discussing “composition” and “depth of field” to introducing a key geological concept: “So what’s going on here? How do plants break down rock? The roots pry at the crack, making it bigger: that’s mechanical weathering. Some secrete fluids: that’s chemical weathering. Here’s a geological process in an everyday site we take for granted,” she said.
Students checked the cameras out for the entirety of the term and went on shoots with Dr. Miller—herself an accomplished photographer—locally and to Crater Lake National Park. Ultimately, the students produced photo essays on geological processes: each essay was printed, framed, and hung in the Gallery of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
“We were encouraged to use the cameras for our personal enjoyment as well as for class because learning to take pictures well requires a lot of practice. This was fun. I took the camera everywhere I went, and I didn’t want to give it back when the term was over!” said one student. “And I especially enjoyed our trip to Crater Lake. Marli led us around the lake on a fascinating geology-tour, and along the way she talked about many aspects of photography, both technical and artistic. I took advantage of Marli’s expertise and stuck close to her at Crater Lake so that I could ask her questions about the best settings to use in different situations or how to get particular effects,” she added.
The public aspect of staging a museum exhibition was a powerful motivator for the students. “When they realized how many people would see their images, they were that much more serious and invested,” Craig said. In fact, Craig estimates that around 15,000 people will view the work in the gallery, where it now hangs, and online—a big number that challenged students to produce not only beautiful images, but also written labels that would invite their viewers into more sustained consideration of the work and the science behind it.
“We want our visitors to become collaborators in interpretation,” Craig said, explaining that good labels require concrete, accessible, and engaging language—they might ask questions, or invite viewers to look again at details. One student wrote a poem. Craig went through multiple revisions with the group, which had to imagine an audience ranging from second-graders to academics.
“I helped the students understand the impact the museum has on its community’s scientific literacy—for many Americans, science learning comes from places like museums.”
Miller is now teaching the course for the second time, and new student work will be hung at the Museum at the end of the term. Miller is looking for faculty campus-wide who might like to use the cameras to lead similar seminars in other academic fields. She says she’s excited to see how other faculty might broaden the experiment—“it’s up to their imagination; there are cameras to share.”