Tollo links teaching with field work

If Richard Tollo had one final thought about his 15-year career teaching geology at GW, it would be that professors need to take students into the field and help them discover a passion for the subject.

Tollo, an associate professor of geology, spoke Wednesday night as part of the Last Lecture Series at Western Presbyterian Church.

“All it takes is students who are willing to go beyond the traditional classroom and professors who are motivated to take students into their realm and show them firsthand what it is that makes them excited,” Tollo said.

“Looking back, it’s struck me how intimately woven my teaching and research have been,” he said. “I don’t think they should be considered as separate entities.”

In his effort to bridge the gap between these two parts of his job, Tollo said he often brings students into the field to research what he teaches in the classroom.

“I require the students to function like scientists. Firsthand they learn much faster and with a much greater level of understanding,” he said. “I put the students in the outdoors, with some skills and tools, and it’s amazing how much more effectively I can teach.”

Tollo said he often discovers new perspectives from students who research in places he has studied for years.

“Students have this incredible ability to ask questions, which point me in new directions,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing when they realize that they’ve discovered something the professor hasn’t learned yet.”

Tollo said he is a firm believer in giving students this first-hand experience, even though this belief often slows the pace of his own scholarly endeavors.

“My colleagues and I must recognize that our primary responsibility is to our students,” Tollo said. “The administration must support direct involvement because of the extraordinary results it leads to.”

But Tollo said the responsibility also lies with students.

“There’s no greater motivator for faculty than inquisitive, energetic students,” he said.

Although large class sizes often pose a problem in the field, he said the study of geology lends itself to extensive field work.

As part of his lecture, Tollo showed slides of the Appalachian Mountains and explained the fundamental ideas of geology to the audience of students, faculty and community members.

He said geologists are “detectives who arrive at the crime scene after an event occurred and try to use clues to construct a model of what happened.”

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