George M. Hornberger

1999 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

George M. Hornberger was awarded the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on June 2, 1999, in Boston, Massachusetts. The award acknowledges a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.


“I met George Hornberger in the autumn of 1970 when, in my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I enrolled in his first course in hydrology in the newly fledged Department of Environmental Sciences. George was one of a bumper crop of faculty with new Ph.D. degrees hired by the university to make this department a reality. Little did anyone know then the influence that he would have on the department, the university, and ultimately thousands of students—both undergraduate and graduate—in the geophysical sciences.

“The development of the Department of Environmental Sciences was an ambitious project, as it was one of the earliest of its kind in the United States. There were no blueprints to follow, and there were the real challenges of developing new courses, adding new faculty, blending the skills and interests of the new faculty with those of the old, and building coherent and productive programs of education in both the undergraduate and graduate realms. In George Hornberger, the department and the students of the University of Virginia found an anchor of skill, enthusiasm, reason, and grace to meet all of these challenges. Students soon came to appreciate the clarity of his lectures. They quickly realized the value and quality of his courses and seminars, which introduced them to prominent questions and areas of research in the forefront of the geophysical sciences as well as to quantitative skills they would need for the rest of their careers. Graduate students also quickly realized that George’s skills as a clear thinker and highly organized researcher were exactly what they wanted either in a major professor or on their graduate committee. Soon he became (and today he remains) in the highest demand for those positions. Lucky students, and they have been many, because his interests span many areas and because he always is there to help, get him on their graduate committees; the luckiest ones get him for their major professor.

“Regardless of the de jure position George occupies on one’s graduate committee, his de facto position often is that of major professor for geophysical aspects, navigator of logical approaches to research, and advisor in the solution of all seemingly impenetrable problems. In the course of nearly every graduate student’s work, there comes a question that seems virtually insoluble. Many a student has trudged head down, feeling defeated, into George Hornberger’s office and after a highly focused discussion, emerged with spring in their step realizing that not only did the problem apparently have an answer, they now understood how to find it for themselves!

“Throughout his tenure, George’s teaching has opened doors to the future for countless students, graduate and undergraduate alike, who have craved quality and relevance in their education. His cross-disciplinary collaborations in the department have served, through their generation of graduate seminars and thesis and dissertation topics, to create new and wonderful learning opportunities for graduate students at all levels. Moreover, for a new department just finding its way, they set an early and crucial standard in collaborative research and teaching. George showed other faculty, either set in their ways of selective specialty or grappling with an introduction to teaching at a major university, what could be done by reaching out and integrating skills. He showed graduate students that integrative studies in the geophysical sciences were not just some hopeful hypothesis, not just some buzzword in a department with a new and funny name, but instead a pathway to an exciting and productive professional future.

“George has served the cause of geophysical education not only through his teaching, mentoring, and service within the University of Virginia, but through careful editorial guidance of key geophysical journals as well as leadership in developing Chapman and Gordon Conferences in the geosciences. He also has made very important contributions both with his coauthorship of the classic 1971 text Numerical Methods in Subsurface Hydrology and as lead author on the recently released Elements of Physical Hydrology, sure to become a classic in its own right.

“George has served his university, the American Geophysical Union, and the geophysical sciences through a wide range of participation and leadership on numerous national committees and has brought distinction to an impressive array of awards from a variety of professional societies and organizations. If, however, you ask the students whose lives he has touched you will find them to a person remarking to the effect ‘. . . but he is so much more than that. He is a teacher, a counselor, a mentor, someone who has shown us what could be done and how we can learn how to do it.’

“Just ask his students and associates, they know: George Hornberger is an example of absolutely the best that geophysical education has to offer.”

—M. ROBBINS CHURCH, NHEERL, U.S. EPA, Corvallis, Oregon


“Thank you, Robbins. For someone whose professional life revolves around working with students, this is indeed a very special award. I decided long ago that, like many of my colleagues, I love my job mainly because what it entails is learning about new things: exploring new ways to think about problems and new ways to solve puzzles. For those of us in academe, our companions on these journeys of intellectual exploration are the students with whom we are fortunate to work. If the common view is that professors disburse knowledge and students gather it up, then the common view is incorrect. The truth is that we learn together, each gaining from the other. It is thus fitting that on receipt of the AGU Excellence in Geophysical Education Award I should take the opportunity to thank publicly the many students who have instructed me throughout my career.

“When I am called on to be an advisor to first-year undergraduate students at the University of Virginia, I often am amused that some of them insist that they must plan their entire career (even their lives!), starting with the selection of their courses for that first semester. I can’t resist telling them that my own view is that life is rather more stochastic than they might wish and my advice is to be open to new learning experiences and to follow their interests as they evolve, whether the evolution is smooth or in a series of punctuated equilibria. In my case, the stochastic perturbation that took me into hydrology came in the person of Irwin Remson. One course taken from Irwin was enough to convince me that if a field attracted people like him, then that was the field for me. I had the good fortune to have Irwin as my graduate advisor. Even though it was almost 30 years ago that I completed my Ph.D. with Irwin, I can picture with clarity visits to his office to discuss my work and to get reinvigorated with a solid dose of enthusiasm. Irwin had the ultimate ‘open-door’ policy: If he was in his office, he was available to meet with students. Having been lucky enough to have Irwin Remson as a mentor, one is moved to strive to emulate him.

“Since leaving Stanford University in 1970, I have been employed at the University of Virginia. The Department of Environmental Sciences has been a great professional home for me and Charlottesville has been a great personal home. Among my first faculty collaborators at Virginia was Mahlon Kelly, an aquatic ecologist. I knew essentially nothing about ecology at the time, and in retrospect I see that this collaboration was another fortunate stochastic event in my life. Mahlon and I were lucky at the time to have a group of graduate students who shared in our searches around the intersection of hydrology and ecology and who were enthusiastic participants in our many lively arguments. Among this talented group (at one time or another) were Robbins Church, Ron Cohen, Jack Cosby, Chuck Gallegos, Bill Keene, Tim Lederman, and several others. I am fortunate that the excitement of the 1970s endured for the students at Virginia and for me. Throughout the twists and turns of my career, I have enjoyed many collaborations with talented students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I cannot possibly thank all by name; I only hope that some shadow of my gratitude is evident. My many colleagues at Virginia and elsewhere who have helped me in scientific work and who have been good friends also have my heartfelt thanks.

“As much as I owe to students and colleagues for making my job a real joy, I also must express my deep gratitude to my family: three generations worth. My parents, George V. and Olive Hornberger, celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary this year. I cannot imagine a more stable base of support than they have given me. My wife, Joan, has been, is, and always will be the love of my life. My children, Rachel and George Z., have graduated from just being offspring to being our best friends as well. Thank you.”

—GEORGE M. HORNBERGER, University of Virginia, Charlottesville