Twenty Years of Ask-A-Geologist
Since October 4, 1994, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Ask-A-Geologist (AAG) project has answered Earth science questions for roughly 60,000 people.
We get questions from young children, students, teachers, professionals, and the general public, who enjoy getting answers directly from USGS scientists. Anyone can send questions by email, through the AAG Web site.
AAG volunteer scientist David Scholl (Menlo Park, California) says: “I liked the AAG project from the get-go, because it seemed to me to be important to meeting our mission responsibility to be the nation’s geologist.” David has answered questions from the beginning, and he continues to answer questions many years after retirement from USGS.
The project began in the Branch of Pacific Marine Geology (now the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center), with 35 scientists volunteering to answer questions. Each scientist answered all the questions for one day each month. Some days one scientist tried to answer 50 questions! In 1995, we recruited several hundred scientists from across the USGS and redesigned the system, so that each scientist answers only a few questions each month. More than 400 USGS scientists have answered questions for AAG over the past 20 years.
Today, 40 USGS scientists volunteer their time to answer AAG questions. Most of those scientists answer one or two questions on one day each month. On average over the past year, we received 84 questions each month and answered 88 percent of those questions.
We try to answer all of the questions, but sometimes we get more questions than we can handle. Most “ask a scientist” services on the web answer a fraction of incoming questions. As you can see from the graph above, some months we get many more questions than others.
AAG volunteer scientist Greg Durocher (Anchorage, Alaska) says: “It’s a chance to learn—sometimes I get questions about things that I haven’t thought about since college. It helps keep the cerebral material a little more pliable!” Greg volunteers to answer more questions than any other volunteer.
We trust AAG volunteer scientists to “do the right thing.” We provide simple guidance, and a reminder that “You are a representative of the U.S. Geological Survey.” Our trust is justified: we have received just a few complaints in 20 years, while answering roughly 60,000 questions.
But we get a lot of spam (junk email). In the past year, 94 percent of AAG email was spam. Our best spam blocker is simple: we ask everyone to include the word “question” in the “Subject” line of their email, and automatically delete email without that word.
We have received hundreds of “thank you” emails from grateful correspondents. Many people appreciate a personalized reply from a working scientist. All of them think more highly of us after getting an answer, so AAG has become an important outreach tool for USGS.
The scientists who volunteer to answer AAG questions enjoy the activity. Most of them answer questions during lunch breaks, after hours, or from home. Questions are randomly assigned, so our scientists often gain knowledge about geologic topics outside their specialties as they look for answers. AAG scientist Jeff Wynn (Vancouver, Washington) says: “I must keep up with and continue studying the full breadth of my profession—I’m a better public servant because of it, and a better professional scientist.”
Rex Sanders (Santa Cruz, California) spends a few hours each month running the project, which runs on existing shared servers. Custom software written by Rex handles most of the routine chores automatically and efficiently.
When we asked Jeff about his most memorable questions, he said: “I once received a series of questions from a 3-year-old named Samantha. Her mom wrote them, but I was astounded at the inquisitiveness and base knowledge of this little girl. She knew and understood more than most teenagers. She was thrilled that a scientist would actually answer her questions—and perhaps someday she will be sitting at my desk answering questions from another child.”
We plan to keep Ask-A-Geologist running long enough for Samantha to answer questions when she grows up.
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