Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Isn't All Geology in the Field? Well, Here's an Exciting Field

There's an ugly vacant lot adjacent to the Science Community Center at Modesto Junior College (the science lab and museum where I work). It's been collecting weeds and litter for years, and some administration officials a few years ago wanted to plant it with grass, and some even suggested making it a parking lot. Maybe there is a little bit of logic to that, given the impacted parking situation at our school, but we, the science faculty and museum staff at MJC had other plans.

More than a decade ago, the people of our county had a marvelous vision of the future, and passed Measure E, a bond issue for almost a billion dollars that would be used to modernize the antiquated buildings at Modesto Junior College. Around $80 million was used to construct the Science Community Center, a gigantic boon to science teaching in our region that includes a planetarium, a research-level observatory, a natural history museum (the Great Valley Museum), and the labs and classrooms for our courses in biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and the earth sciences. It is now one of the finest teaching facilities in the state, but it wasn't finished.

For more than three decades the science faculty and museum staff have been trying to put together an outdoor nature laboratory that would complement the science labs and museum experience. Over and over the proposals were made, and time after time we were told there was no budget available to complete such a project. With the passage of Measure E, it looked like the dream might actually come to fruition. But it wasn't an easy road. There were many proposals, and one by one the highest priority projects were constructed. The pool of available funds dwindled to the last few million dollars, and there were still another dozen or so proposals competing for the last of the funds. We went through several presidents during that time, and some supported our proposal and some didn't. The possibility of ever getting an outdoor education laboratory seemed to be dwindling.

But finally word came out that the project had been approved! The planning process then needed to start, and I served on the committee that designed the lab. We came up with what we thought would be the best blueprint, and it went out to bid. The bids came in high, so we went back to work with a modified proposal. I may have missed a memo, because a bid was finally accepted and when I walked into my office this morning a construction crew was beginning to bulldoze and survey the field! It's an exciting moment for our community.
When it is completed, this empty field will have a greenhouse and a collection of native vegetation of the Great Valley and the surrounding foothills. There will be outcrops of the important rocks of the Sierra Nevada foothills, including granite, the "tombstone rocks" of Mother Lode slate, the volcanic rocks of Table Mountain, and others. There will be a vernal pool, a biological oddity that is practically unique to the Great Valley. There will also be a simulated paleontology excavation pit that will allow school children to experience what it is like to dig for the fossils that have been found in our region. The children who visit our Great Valley Museum will have the opportunity to see exhibits about the natural history of the region, and then they will be able to go outdoors and experience the natural environment directly. Our long-term dream is finally becoming a reality.

Wow, that was fast. I finished my morning classes and look out over the work area and the perimeter fencing is already up.
 And after my lunch, there's a bulldozer already scraping off the surface weeds. Fast moving!

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