Warren Huff: A Geologist With a Passion for Lifelong Learning
Date: Oct. 14, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by: Colleen Kelley
UC geology professor Warren Huff has spent the last 30 years studying evidence of explosive ancient volcanoes, but this summer, he trekked across the glaciers of Alaska with a group of geology students and faculty.
"I'm kind of a maverick on this trip," joked Huff
Huff was making his third trip along with trip leader Professor Thomas Lowell, a colleague in the UC geology department. Lowell is an expert in glacial geology and has focused his recent research on how glacial changes reflect climate change in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
This August, Lowell led a group of 16 on a field study of more than a dozen glaciers in south central Alaska, helping graduate and undergraduate students learn to study the massive ice blocks in a scientific and methodical manner.
Click here to watch video of the group climbing toward Byron Glacier.
Huff provided assistance during the early part of the trip and readily admitted he also thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular views.
"Tom's a good friend, and we collaborate a lot in the department," said Huff. "But I also like to see geology outside of my own field. It's for personal pleasure, scientific interest, and I LEARN stuff. I learn from Tom every time I go on one of these trips."
Huff teaches first-year geology courses, which he says pose a special challenge.
"You have to stay abreast of so many different areas," said Huff. "You have to be up to date on what isn't in the textbooks, and then I have to make it interesting. Glaciers interest me, so I spend a lot of time teaching about them.
"I do the same thing with other specialists in our department, such as paleontology or metamorphic petrology. I enjoy going out on trips with them, finding out what are the issues of interest. Then, I feel more comfortable teaching those subjects in my introductory courses."
Huff works very hard with textbook publishers and authors to keep the books up to date with the ever-changing scientific landscape. He also looks for new ways to convey the information in his classes. Huff was one of the pioneers in using instructional technology in his courses.
"I like to use technology, and the students respond to it. I've developed two dozen web-based exercises using images and raw data. The students have to query the data and answer the questions I pose. This is for first-year students," he emphasized.
Working with UC's First Year Experience initiative, Huff is convinced that faculty need to raise expectations for their incoming students. "I want to push very hard," he says, requiring students to use Excel spreadsheets, for example, to get data and create charts.
He credits the University Libraries staff with providing excellent training for those students (and faculty) who haven't had experience with those skills yet.
"Our libraries are way out in front when it comes to using technology," said Huff.
Still, Huff finds the most effective and most interactive learning happens out in the field. That's another reason he took part in Lowell's Glacial Field Methods course.
"This is a great way to teach. There's some bantering, but it's fun to have that social interaction. It's hands-on. It's realistic. It's the ultimate interactive tool."
"The best thing for the students is that they find out if they really like the field. The pictures are so attractive, and you might have a good teacher, but the field experience lets them see what it's really like."
Huff said students collaborate more effectively in the field. "In courses, the students are more stratified. In the field, that dividing line between undergraduate and graduate student blurs. Everyone's out there working, and they're so enthusiastic. They're not thinking about who's a senior or a junior."
Huff spiced several hikes and road trips with his knowledge of the Alaskan volcanoes such as Mt. Wrangell and Redoubt, as well as recounting the story of the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964.
But he added much more than his scientific expertise to the trip this year. He also brought along his fiddle which he's trying to learn to play. So, nearly every night, the students enjoyed a "reel" treat around the campsite.
Click here to enjoy some of Professor Huff's fiddlin'.
Huff had to leave the Alaskan trip early to prepare for a scientific meeting in Slovakia. There, he's helping to nurture a new professional group, rather than future geologists.
After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Slovak geologists specializing in clay minerals were separated from their former national association. Pulling together with Polish and Hungarian geologists, they formed the Middle Eastern European Clay Minerals Group. Huff was invited to their first major international meeting.
"It means cutting this trip short and coming back just before school starts, but they want the meeting to be successful, so I'm going."
Huff will present a paper on Silurian age bentonites found in [the] Ukraine. Bentonites are clays which form after an explosive volcanic eruption. Huff believes the Ukraine ash layers constitute evidence of a previously unknown volcano chain similar to Alaska's Aleutian Islands and Wrangell Mountains.
"The problem is these chains form in subduction zones where one plate is pushing under another. So, the volcanic arc isn't preserved. The only evidence is these ash beds."
Like most of his work, the Ukraine project was a collaborative effort. "I work best by collaboration," said Huff. Nearly every paper I've published has a co-author listed."
His primary collaborators are Stig Bergström at Ohio State University and Dennis Kolata of the Illinois Geological Survey. Together, the trio has studied massive volcanic systems on every continent.
But after more than 30 years in the field, Huff says he still can't see a time when he's ready to pack in his tent for good. "I take the trips, because I can do it and enjoy it. At my age, I have to consciously exercise and focus more on staying in shape. If I wake up one day and it seems like a chore, then I suppose I'll stop."
Until then, listen carefully for a little fiddlin' music when you're out in the woods. It just might be Professor Warren Huff...challenging his students, his colleagues, and himself.
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