UTSC Teaching Award recipient Heidi Daxberger talks about the "whoa" effect of geology

Prof. Heidi Daxberger

While Heidi Daxberger – assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC – is now fascinated by minerals, rocks and all things geological, she took a circuitous route to finding her career path.
After graduating from high school in her homeland of Germany, she worked for four years in a bank –but mundanity soon set in. “It was too much sitting at a desk concentrating on one thing,” says Daxberger, who recently received a UTSC Teaching Award in the Assistant Professors and Lecturers category.
Then she attended a Grade 1 school reunion where a former classmate mentioned she was studying geology. The classmate said, “The first thing you do is buy a hammer and then you go on field trips.” Daxberger thought, “And it’s all about rocks. Hmmm, that sounds kind of fun.”
Daxberger signed up for geology at university. “The first day, first lecture, it was clear that it was a good fit.” She loved how hands-on it was, and became immersed in learning everything rock-related. Daxberger now passes on that passion to her students, teaching such courses as Earth History, Petrology and Structural Geology.
The shelves in Daxberger’s home office are chock full of rock samples from her lab. In pre-Covid times, she could often be spotted on UTSC campus, wheeling her trusty cart of rocks between classes. The tactile nature of geology, the physical act of handling and examining a wedge of schist or basalt or limestone, is a crucial component of teaching to Daxberger. “In geology everything is three-dimensional – in the field, as well as in the lab. It’s important to teach students how to look at rocks, and to imagine how a rock layer forms.”
Daxberger holds up models of pure-white deformed rocks she had created with a 3D printer. “Here are some shapes that we use for the Structural Geology course, where we talk about how rocks are deformed – how they get squeezed together, elongated,” she says. Often, students analyze deformations based on a picture, she says, but that requires them “to magically understand how it looks in 3D.” With these models, she notes, students can actually take measurements.
Daxberger’s commitment to a hands-on experience was challenged when the pandemic hit. She and her team went full throttle on the digital front, creating 3D virtual versions of her rock samples that students could rotate with a drag of a mouse. The images are so vivid that the viewer can see the shininess of grey glassy quartz and almost feel the ridges in a piece of desert-rose barite. “It still gives them an idea how it would look in multiple dimensions instead of just seeing the flat picture,” she says. Daxberger also added short instructional videos and Quercus quizzes to the mix.
“It took a long time to figure out the techniques to make the virtual 3D models. There were weeks of trial and error and just nothing. That was really the frustrating part,” she says. “But once it worked, it was awesome, because we can keep whatever we’ve made and reuse it in the future.”
The remote-learning shift extended to Daxberger’s field trips. These outdoor excursions are vital to Daxberger as they allow students to see the breathtaking big picture and explore geology in the real world. Albion Falls in Hamilton, for example – with its large variety of cliffs and well exposed rock layers – was a favourite site of Daxberger’s until it was shut to the public in 2017. Because of this shutdown, she and her team had taken drone footage of the area intending to create a remote field trip. When the pandemic struck, they accelerated the process, and created a virtual excursion within three weeks. Along with UAV video footage, the team used 3D imagery, graphs, maps and close-up photos to allow students to explore renderings of outcrops and fossils. “Geology is traditionally very experiential-learning driven, and in the end, it is how it is best learned,” she says. “Students love it. It gets them more interested in the entire topic, and it's so nice to see them when they say, ‘Oh, that’s how it looks in reality.’”
Daxberger is on sabbatical this year, and she is eager to continue her work in the virtual realm. She is collaborating with colleagues at UTM and McMaster University to digitize more items for the remote-learning toolkit and to create another virtual field trip. She also plans to amp up her designing and printing of 3D teaching objects and hopes to create short modules – and perhaps eventually an online course – centred on using 3D modelling software.
In the end, what Daxberger really wants for students is to awaken an awareness of the geology all around them, whether it be a pebble in the grass or majestic cliffs during a walk in nature. “For students in my introductory Earth Science class, I really want them to recognize that when they go outside, geology is everywhere. You can barely ignore it once you’ve seen it. There’s evidence of how our Earth developed over time everywhere.
“When they see layered rocks, they can tell, by what they learn in class, if it was eroded by water or ice or wind and what type of rock it is… for example, that the Escarpment is mostly all limestone, and that it was deposited under water, in the ocean, 400 million years ago.
“I also want to show them the vastness of geology and time: That we are tiny compared to all these rocks that are 400 million years old, and they’re right around us. That is the ‘whoa’ effect of geology."  – Stacey Gibson