Penn State professor channels rock stars to teach rock science

January 30, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- The music may come out of the 1960s, but an open courseware class available at Penn State that includes a guitar playing and singing professor is definitely designed for the Millennial Generation. Highlighted with video clips, animations and song parodies, the course not only instructs, it also entertains and fulfills general education requirements for undergraduates not majoring in geoscience.

Most course instructors do not enthusiastically sing a parody of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" as part of course orientation. Nor do they sing about the value of seismography in a parody of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." But Penn State Professor Richard Alley does just that and more for students in his online course, "Geology of the National Parks" (GEOSC 10).

On the Web at you can catch Alley, Penn State's Evan Pugh professor of geoscience and a world-renowned expert in climate change and glaciology, dressed in black and imitating Cash in an effort to inform students about groundwater pollution, biodiversity and volcanic hazards.

In the videos, Alley picks up a guitar and admits, "I'm not Johnny Cash." In a deep bass voice, he channels Cash in the parody "Watch the Line." Alley sings, "We keep a close watch on the seismic line," to let students know that seismic stations around the world keep track of a variety of activities and even provide warnings. Stanzas that deal with tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes and clandestine bomb explosions drill home the point as Alley adds the refrain, "So you're not dyin', we watch the line."

While the words run across the bottom of the screen, images of seismic stations, seismographs, cartoons of erupting lava and exploding bombs appear on the screen.

According to Alley, the course has four goals: first, to help students become better informed citizens on topics that may affect them in the future; second, to demonstrate what is and is not believable about science and explain those subjects on which scientists are usually correct and those on which scientists have no special expertise; third, to give students enough geological background so they will get more out of their next visit to a park; and finally, to show students beautiful places so they can't wait to go out and visit them on their own.

An online textbook, "Rocking the Parks: Geological Stories of the National Parks," and lectures are the core of each of the 12 units. The lectures are accompanied by slide presentations. Most units also have virtual tours of parks and some have GeoClips, short video clips of geologic concepts created by Alley, former students and others. Cindy Alley, Richard's wife and a geologist, works on many of the animations.

Mini-lectures in the form of GeoMations use the computer screen as a white board with Alley drawing graphs or cartoons while he talks and explains the terrain. To illustrate tectonic motion and earthquakes, stick-drawn houses collapse, and to explain icebergs, a green, bug-eyed alien trapped in the very bottom of the ice may just reach out and capsize your boat as Alley explains how icebergs float.

Alley is not the only professor on screen for this course. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, associate professor of geosciences, the co-developer of GEOSC 10, sits in a bathtub surrounded by floating ducks in "Rubber Duckie," ( He explains how mountains form and why buoyancy is important in mountain building. He also describes his seismic research on the antarctic ice in a two-part video; however, he is in his office and not in the bathtub for these videos.

The course's "Extra Resources" section offers four music videos, "Obla di Obla da" and "Watch the Line" plus "Submarine Beaches" a parody of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" that illustrates how beaches are created and how they disappear; and "Ring of Fire," another Johnny Cash parody. Promised but not yet available is "Rollin' to the Future," a parody of "Proud Mary," originally sung by Credence Clearwater Revival. Other rock videos will become available over time.

For students registered for the class, geology principles abound, and they might not even notice they are learning some heavy-duty scientific principles. But the public also can access the course at Formal registration gains access to assignments and instructor feedback and earns academic credit, but the lectures, GeoMations and extra resources are available to everyone. This course combines a tour of some of the U.S. National Parks and Monuments and explains how these wonders of nature formed.

GEOSC 10, "Geology of the National Parks," is part of the Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Minerals Sciences and is part of the College's Open Educational Resources initiative. Faculty members have contributed their work voluntarily for use by teachers and learners around the world who cannot afford to enroll in formal classes, or who do not need to earn academic credit.

  • Richard Alley channels rock stars while teaching. Click on the photo above to see videos of Alley playing.

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010