Monday, January 14, 2008

Why I Teach...Part 3

I look in my files and study a picture of Mt. St. Helens I took in 2001. The 1986 dome in the crater is some 900 feet high, and in 15 years, it has not changed much.
I flip to a picture I took in 2006. A huge new dome is there, growing at a rate of thousands of cubic feet per day. Hour by hour, it doesn’t change much, and day by day it looks no different, but it is getting bigger and bigger, and every few weeks, a flank collapses, causing an explosion, and sending ash plumes high into the atmosphere.

I think about geologic change. . .

I started teaching two wars ago, both of them in the Middle East, and both, despite all of the various justifications for fighting a war, on lands situated over hundreds of billions of barrels of petroleum. I think about the students who have sat in my classes, dozing over another recitation over the scarcity of resources, and going on with their lives, hardly giving a thought to where their gasoline is coming from.

The prices rise, bit by bit. It seems barely noticeable day by day, but a hurricane strikes, a bomb explodes somewhere, and suddenly the price for a gallon of gasoline shoots up. It seems not so long ago that $2.00 per gallon was “expensive”. Now people are relieved when the price dips below $3.00.

I think about economic change. . .

I love teaching about geology. I love it because I am fascinated by the beauty of crystals, the grandeur of earth history, the strangeness of the many animals that have lived on the earth, and I love understanding how a landscape came to be, whether from flowing water, grinding ice, or surging lava. For years, I have looked forward to teaching, just for the joy of opening new worlds to my students.

The stakes feel higher these days. We are running out of easy oil. As the price of energy continues to rise, we as a society will finally have to confront the choices that have to be made about our energy future. Who will be making those decisions?

The oil companies? The coal companies? The nuclear power plant owners? Who do you think will benefit from their choices? No, the decision lies with the members of our society, whether they want to participate or not. It is our role as teachers to convince, cajole, encourage, and inspire our students to care about the huge changes, and choices, which face our society. It’s not an easy job, but it is important.
These are some slightly modified excerpts from my presidential messages in the newsletter of the Far West Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. The originals can be seen at

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