Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why I Teach...

I completed a four year stint as the president of the Far West Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers this last spring. One of my favorite activities as president of the section was the president's message that accompanied the twice-yearly newsletter. It was the first time I mused publicly about the reasons that I teach, and why I still enjoy it after 19 years in the flat plains of the Great Valley in California. Here are a few excerpts of some of my favorites (all of them are archived at http://nagt-fws.org/nwsltr1.htm)

"...I stepped over the pile of Grizzly droppings and continued up the trail, suddenly a bit more attentive to my surroundings. The clouds above were threatening to let loose with a downpour, and I was getting tired, having already walked 5 miles horizontally, and 2,500 feet vertically, to approach the glacially carved ridge high above. But none of these distractions mattered; nothing was going to disturb my mood. I was almost there, almost to the quarry where Charles Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale fossil assemblage back in 1909. It is hard to describe my feelings as I took those last few steps up to the rocks in the opening above.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Burgess Shale fossil locality from your earth history and paleontology classes. It is one of the few places where the soft anatomy of creatures was preserved, giving us a unique picture of a moment in time some 515 million years ago, very soon after the “Cambrian explosion”. The usually common trilobites take a back seat to the strange and graceful creatures like Marrella, Opabina, Pikaia, Hallucigenia, and Anomalocaris. What a privilege to pick up and consider these small treasures from a time so different from our own.

I stood there on that high mountain ridge in the Canadian Rockies, thinking about my students back home in Modesto. How would they feel if they were here? I had to think that the earth and its history is so rich, and so stupendous, that not even the most cynical student could fail to be moved by the incredible diversity of life, and the long tectonic story that formed the earth we see today. If they could only just be there.

It is our job to bring the world to our students. We can’t always take them there in person, but we can make the earth alive to them in our classrooms and laboratories. We provide the tools for them, and through our guidance they develop the skills to find answers to their questions about the processes and history of the earth. It is our example that brings to light the scientific method of testing hypotheses and developing theories through careful investigation. "
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