Why do scientists write textbooks

“That's how I started with a textbook more than 15 years ago” - How research becomes a good book for teaching

Martin Trauth is a geoscientist and adjunct professor for paleoclimate dynamics. When he's not doing field studies in East Africa or analyzing samples in the laboratory, he teaches Potsdam students - primarily about how geoscientific data is obtained and evaluated. In the meantime he has already written several textbooks about exactly this. Matthias Zimmermann talked to him about what brought him to textbook writing, why he is sticking to it - and why Lego bricks are exactly the right tool for a geoscientific internship.

Mr. Trauth, not long ago you traveled to the desert of Ethiopia for one of your research projects to extract drill cores from dried-up lakes. Is it sometimes difficult to find your way back to the lecture hall from the field or the laboratory?

No not at all! I enjoy both, researching in Africa and teaching in the classroom. In fact, many of the ideas in the books came about while working in Africa. And if you leaf through the books, you will also find many examples from Africa, for example satellite images of our study areas in Kenya and Ethiopia.

What is the attraction for you as a lecturer in front of students?

I don't actually stand in front of the students very much, but wander between them while they crack problems! And then the students are more likely to stand in front of me (and the others) when they present the results of their work.
When I actually stand in front of the students, they get a short introduction to the topic - the details are in the books, I don't actually have to “read them out”! We also often leave the seminar room, hike around with GPS technology on the Golm university campus or take measurements in the botanical garden on Maulbeerallee.
The attraction of teaching is the fascination with communicating with young people who are passionate about studying geosciences. It is incredibly nice when I feel that someone has understood something that I was trying to explain to him / her! I then also experience a lot of gratitude, currently especially from our international students.

What do you think teaching must be like to be good?

I actually think about this all the time - and maybe this will be my next, fourth book, then with my Cologne colleague Dr. Verena Förster. She works at the University of Cologne at the seminar for geography and its didactics and occasionally teaches individual events on the subject of non-verbal communication as part of my courses.
I have almost completely given up the traditional format with lecture, exercise and / or seminar with a final exam. Instead, the students are given a task that is described in just a few words. And then we spend an afternoon together designing and building an experimental setup, performing measurements, and evaluating and interpreting the measured data.
During the semester, everyone works on their own projects, first proposing them, implementing them and presenting the results in a final colloquium. One of my international students didn't know that, was terrified of the final exam. Learning equations by heart, that's what he expected. He finished the course with a great project and a very good grade!

You have already written two textbooks. What is it about?

The first book deals with statistical and numerical methods for data analysis in the geosciences. When I started writing the book, I had already been teaching courses on this subject for ten years at the University of Potsdam, but also at other universities and research institutes around the world. I wrote the second book with my sister Elisabeth Sillmann, a graphic designer. It is about data research, processing and presentation.

What is it about writing textbooks that attracts you?

Most scientists write articles for specialist journals, ten pages maximum, and many even shorter. As the list of these essays got longer, I started thinking about what I could try next. When you have managed to get an article in well-known magazines such as “Science” or “Nature”, you are looking for new challenges.
And so I started more than 15 years ago with a textbook that had about 250 pages in the first edition and almost twice as thick in the new, fifth edition. When, after a year of negotiations with the publisher, signing a contract, intensive writing, editing and typesetting, the package with free copies is delivered to the office, with a colorful hard cover, that is a very nice feeling!

You are currently writing a textbook in which you explain to students how to use smartphones, small infrared cameras and Lego sets to collect data in the geosciences. What's it all about?

In the data analysis class I refer to the geoscientific measurement methods with which our data is obtained. An example of this is a multi-sensor satellite that hovers high above the earth. We recreated and programmed such a satellite with different Lego sensors.
The internship now includes more than 30 different experiments, each with optical, magnetic or acoustic sensors, which are used in two master's courses in geosciences, but also in summer schools for doctoral students. Well - if you have written two books, each with several editions, you can quickly start a third!

How do you shift work on it between research and teaching?

That is not always easy, especially because more and more administrative tasks are expected of us in the subjects - especially in the administration of study matters. On the other hand, I have received a lot of support from the Dean's Office and the Presidium, which provide me with funds to hire a research assistant. I am very grateful for that!

Textbook writers are not exactly imagined as bestselling authors ...

The success of the first book actually surprised me! Hardly appeared, within a few weeks it shot to number 1 at SpringerNature Verlag, out of almost 1,500 books in the earth and environmental sciences. When you write your first book, you are ready for anything, including the fact that not a single one will be sold.
When I stopped by the publisher's booth at a European conference, I couldn't find it. Disappointed, I asked an editor at the booth, who enthusiastically explained to me that it was sold out on the morning of the first day and that they were waiting for a much larger delivery.

... who come into conversation with their enthusiastic readers on reading tours. How do you know if your books are doing their job?

I get a lot of emails from readers, some of them students, many doctoral candidates, but also colleagues who teach from the books. For two years now, I've also been blogging about the books, with 600 registered readers and many others who read along without registering. Many questions, suggestions, and corrections of errors in the books come from all of these people.

What do you (still) learn when you write a textbook?

I try to make the books much broader thematically than I am myself. In my first book you will find my core competence in time series analysis and signal processing in chapters 5 and 6, out of a total of ten chapters. This is even more pronounced in the current book. I have to learn a lot about it anew, try it out and, if it works, write it down.

And what comes next? Field, laboratory, lecture hall or desk?

We're on vacation, I have a comparatively long time to write. At the same time, we are also reporting on our Ethiopia project. A lot of journal articles are created here - and the final report for the German Research Foundation! There is a conference in Vienna in May, and I won't be able to go to Africa again until July!

The interview was held in early March. In the meantime, the University of Potsdam is in emergency mode, the conference in Vienna has been canceled, and a workshop on the Ethiopia project will probably not take place. Most scientists continue to work in the home office on projects, publications - and books like Martin Trauth. Here is the beginning of a new chapter:

This is one of the chapters of the book that was written during the COVID-19 crisis (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) in spring 2020. The university closed, classes and exams ceased, and all teachers and students experimented with eLearning methods. In these times, remote sensing takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of carrying out experiments in the office or in the university classroom or even abroad in geological outcrops, one looks for the objects to be examined in the home office, in the garden or on the roof terrace. And so many of the series of measurements were carried out exactly there, which does not mean that they are less suitable for explaining the principles to be conveyed.

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