2021 Biggs Award for Excellence in Earth Science Teaching

Presented to Katherine Ryker

Katherine Ryker

Katherine Ryker
University of South Carolina


Citation by Larry Collins, Delta State University

It is my sincere honor to nominate Dr. Katherine Ryker for the 2021 Biggs Earth Science Teaching Award. Dr. Ryker earned her B.S. in Earth and Ocean Sciences from Duke University, M.S. in Sedimentary Geology from NC State University, and a PhD in Geoscience Education from North Carolina State University.

At each institution where Dr. Ryker has contributed, she has been a force for positive change. Beginning in her days at North Carolina State University as a PhD student, she was a lab coordinator for over 25 sections of Physical Geology where she collaborated with colleagues to continuously improve the student’s laboratory experience with this course. At Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and University of South Carolina (USC), she developed several new courses for multiple audiences including general education students, education majors, and geoscience education researchers. Her strong knowledge of active learning practices is embedded in each of her courses and she always seeks opportunities to share her expertise with others, whether in workshops at professional organizations or at her home institution.

If there is one trait about Katherine that numerous students and colleagues speak about, it is her strong commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in geology. At Eastern Michigan University, she routinely spoke about women in science and the larger workforce helping others to identify their own pathway into the natural sciences. One of her notable accomplishments at USC was working with a blind student to develop instructional materials that would help make her introductory course an “out of this world” experience for this student. Additionally, she has also made presentations to Girl Scout groups in Columbia, SC on topics such as “Minerals and Environment”. As one colleague stated, “Katherine is opening the door for everyone to share their ideas and discover their own science identity.”

Katherine has contributed greatly to the geosciences and geoscience education, both through her work and through her personal actions. She welcomes all into science and cultivates an interest in geology for everyone fortunate enough to encounter her.


Response by Katherine Ryker

I am greatly humbled to receive the 2021 Biggs award. As I was reflecting on this honor, I thought about what it means to me to study and teach about the Earth. I consider teaching to be an act of simultaneously giving and receiving a great gift. To teach about the Earth we are entrusted with, doubly so. My students come to my class and lab curious, and it is my job to sustain and nourish that curiosity, so that they leave more knowledgeable about and interested in the world around them. I tell them learning geology is a lot like learning to read: one day, your eye is casually scanning over lines in abstract patterns on a surface. The next, a story bursts forth in front of you.

Geology has a special way of encouraging us to ask questions, posit multiple hypotheses, and use all the skills and knowledge at our disposal to test them. Though many geologists will describe fantastic mountain, desert or coastal environments as their favorite places to work and play, it has always fascinated me that you can engage with geology wherever you are, a point I hope my students come away with. You can admire sediment transport along a concrete curb, a beautiful countertop slab, or how the angle of the sun can be observed using a line of melting snow by a school building. You can question the materials you use to grade the area around your house to prevent water damage, or make a better pot of coffee using the principles of porosity and permeability. You can even ponder the geologic history of the gravel under your feet along a camp road on the way to the dining hall.

I’ve known I wanted to teach at least since I was in high school. My love for geology came from many places, much like individual rivulets collecting until they became the river that was my undergraduate degree. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to play outside, even allowing us to build our own Mud River, much to the erosional devastation of our side yard. My love of the world was strengthened by my own great K12 teachers like Mrs. Spotts and Dan Dalke, my mentor teachers Sam Fuerst and Josh Roberts, the inestimably kind, curious and creative David McConnell, and the many family members who just love being outside, from my Aunt Becca to all the cousins who’ve put up with me on our trips together.

All of these people are with me when I teach. Again, teaching is a gift that goes both ways. While we are inclined to think about what our students get out of the process, selfishly, I love that I not only get to learn from my students, but that I get to remember Mrs. Spotts patiently teaching me to test water quality in 8th grade, Dan Dalke getting a bunch of high schoolers to propagate the corals for the Georgia Aquarium and taking me on my first birding hike in Ecuador, working with Sam and Josh to figure out how to use our first class set of handheld GPS units, and David continuously reminding me how lucky we are to do what we do, showing up with gusto every day for his own students.

Thank you to all those who supported my nomination, and to all those students who continue to gift me with their time and attention. To the students yet to come, I look forward to welcoming you into this great community of Earth scientists and appreciators.