Throughout my life, I have often heard people use the expression “the proof is in the pudding,” but I never really gave much thought to what it really referred to. So, what does it mean? Is it a reference to Jell-O shots? In the context of food, it means that you must try something to know if you like it or not. In fact, you may need to try something a dozen times or more to know for sure. In the case of incorporating new technology in the groundwater industry, it means one must try something new, maybe several times, to know if it works for you or not.

We live in a society that tends to embrace and even thrive on the polarization of issues, methods  and standards that are not as black and white as one would be led to believe (e.g., religion ~ politics, nature ~ nurture, old ~ new, or good ~ evil). It is easy to discard a new process, philosophy or technology as unhelpful or cumbersome after a first failed attempt at it, but I would argue that these kinds of failures are necessary for growth and often drive innovation and invention. In fact, these dichotomies can have great value in revealing the gray areas that exist between them, and I believe that we can grow as an industry and as individuals by learning how to embrace the “pudding” that exists in the middle. 

I was first introduced to the Theory of Coordination Dynamics by my late uncle Charles Berger, a professor of communications at UC Davis, in a book called “The Complementary Nature” (Kelso and Engstrøm, 2006). Admittedly, I wasn’t quite sure what folks who studied communications really did at the time, but, after I started to read the book, I began to believe that the theory is relevant to industrial drilling and hydrogeology. One example that presents itself immediately in my mind is theoretical ~ practical. Note that I am using the ( ~ ) symbol between these examples to show them not as opposing (1 vs. 2), but rather as complementary pairs that depend on each other and exist contemporaneously. When it comes to drilling knowledge, I hear time and again that we need to bridge the gap between what can be learned in the classroom versus what can be learned in the field. Industrial drillers need theoretical knowledge, and scientists and engineers need more applied training. Discussions are usually followed up quickly with a comment about how “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or “that may work on paper, but not in the real world.” Perhaps neither argument is wrong or right at all, but rather the two thought processes exist because of each other and serve to form a middle ground for us to ponder the nature of our business as well as ourselves. 

I instruct a course at Western Michigan University twice each summer called “The Principles and Practices of Well Drilling and Installation” as part of our six-week hydrogeology field course. Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and locations throughout the country and abroad, each one bringing individual levels of experience, technical aptitude and ambition. A small portion of the course is spent inside the classroom talking about theory, techniques, soil classification schemes and the importance of field safety, but mostly we prepare them for extended time spent on various field activities and drilling demonstrations.

One of the main goals and learning outcomes that I set out for the students is to learn to communicate with industrial drillers and to be attentive, engaged and approachable so that the crew will reciprocate. I also want them to observe and take copious field notes and work collaboratively as a team to perform the various tasks assigned to them. Through facilitating this interaction between the students and the drillers, I present to both students and drill crews the gray area that epitomizes the theoretical/practical gap. It is fun to watch them interact.
Sometimes, when they are unsure of what each other is doing, it leads to very interesting conversations about why an individual performs a task a certain way and what has led them to do it that way — active learning! A blend of technical and creative thinking lends itself very well to both industrial drillers and hydrogeologists. Some of our students struggle with the open-ended, fluid, experiential nature of learning on-the-job, just as some of them thrive on it and struggle with the regimented teaching style often presented to them in a traditional classroom environment. I think both are vitally important to preparing for successful careers in the groundwater industry, and that creative approaches to communicating and integrating technology can be both fun and challenging.

Complementary Pairs

The following are examples of ideas or concepts that may seem like polar opposites, but can really complement each other if people think about the sweet spot between them.

  • paper ~ digital
  • manual ~ automatic
  • qualitative ~ quantitative
  • competition ~ cooperation
  • creation ~ destruction
  • individual ~ team
  • order ~ random
  • certainty ~ uncertainty
  • local ~ regional
  • formation ~ material
  • continuous ~ discrete
  • process ~ results
  • conservation ~ extraction
  • brittle ~ plastic
  • stable ~ unstable
  • competent ~ incompetent

Over the course of six weeks, the students are exposed to a variety of new and emerging technologies and cutting-edge software. These technologies span the fields of drilling and well installation, environmental geophysics, aquifer testing, groundwater sampling, hazardous waste operations and remediation design. One should still be careful to relay the importance of taking manual readings and jotting down handwritten field notes on bound notebooks. Automated data loggers and telemetry systems are tremendous assets in collecting high-resolution data while performing a 48-hour continuous aquifer pumping test, but that data will always need to be validated by manual measurement. Software programs can create beautiful models of water table elevations and contaminant plumes, but it is still necessary and useful to hand-contour the same data. Each available drilling technology has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on site conditions, availability and scope of the project. Maybe there really is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.

Do we really need to take an either/or approach? How do we integrate and embrace all the action in between? How do we find the sweet spot that tends to be where the truth often lies? Some more examples of complementary pairs that exist in the industrial drilling and geological circles are presented in the box on the right for you to ponder and discuss. Perhaps if we view them as such, and not as polar opposite methods or concepts, it will help drive the innovation and invention needed to help us grow as an industry and maybe even as human beings.