Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Far Western Section Outstanding Earth Science Teacher of the Year: Nick Crooker

Nick Crooker, an earth science teacher at Modesto High School in Modesto, California, is the Far Western Section OEST award winner for 2010. Nick came out of a background in biology and returned to school for an education in earth science so he could develop a well-rounded program at his school.

Nick has been a member of the NAGT for a number of years, attending conferences and field trips in the Far Western Section. He helped prepare the guidebook for the FWS Lava Beds National Monument conference in 2007.

Nick describes several important traits in a good teacher: Steadfastness helps in the teaching profession when the political environment tends to erode quality support in the classroom. Patience with each student helps him make them the best they can be. Flexibility enables him to handle unexpected problems and teaching situations in the classroom. Humor helps keep the instructor sane and the students interested in the subject matter. All of this is under the umbrella of a broad science background in the physical, environmental, and biological sciences. He is able to draw upon years of experience and incorporate this in classroom instruction.

Nick's classroom has rock displays and pictures coordinating with the State Standards. With tight budgets, field trips are an impossibility. With document cameras and LCD projectors, he shares with his students exciting places of geological interest via the internet and from his own personal travels.

Currently, he participates with the A.V.I.D. program at Modesto High School. This program takes selected students who will be the first to go on to a college education in their family, and engage them in a rigorous academic program throughout their four years in high school. He has also taught the natural and physical sciences for the local Adult School for the past 23 years.
Nick receives the Far Western Section OEST Award at the Fresno Meeting

Congratulations, Nick!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Reflections on an Accretionary Wedge: Why I am a Proud Member of the NAGT

(cross-posted at

I recently contributed to the latest Accretionary Wedge by talking about my first geology field trip, a 5 day backpack in the depths of the Grand Canyon way back in 1976. Part of the subsequent fallout was the unearthing of pictures of that trip, courtesy of Joy, who was one of my fellow travelers at the time (Facebook has some positive aspects, actually). I am a visually oriented learner, and my memories are most strongly reinforced by photographs, so this was a real pleasure to be able to relive part of my past with these grainy reminders (weren't Kodak Instamatics a wonderful form of photography?). For instance, I don't remember his name, but the bearded gentleman on the left was a very vocal vegetarian, but during the trip he seemed to get hungrier and hungrier, and when we reached the rim at the end of the five days, he looked at the menu in the Grand Canyon Lodge, and ordered a huge steak...

The professor who led that trip into the canyon was my inspiration to become a teacher of geology. That's him in the picture above, explaining to us how the basaltic sills were able to intrude the sediments of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, and how they helped us to place a date on the formation of those sediments. I still remember the shock of realizing that I really could almost literally travel through time by holding and understanding the origin of rocks that were hundreds of millions years old (imagine seeing the imprint of a raindrop that hit the ground 800 million years ago!). Looking at a picture of Marlin at work, I realize that I can trace many of the ideas I use in teaching to the things that he did all those years ago. Innovative ideas in teaching appear all the time, and they can be very effective, but I am reminded that the geological sciences are among the most historical of the academic disciplines as well. I mean this in the sense that there is an academic lineage that gives us a direct link to the founders of the science of geology, and that those brilliant and perceptive minds continue on with a different form of immortality (I wrote about this for a different Accretionary Wedge two years ago). I think what I am really saying is that people often become geologists and teachers not so much because they planned on it the way kids plan on being firefighters or police officers, but because they were inspired to pursue it because of the dedication of their teachers. I know I am over-generalizing about this, but I just don't see someone pursuing an MBA because he or she was inspired by a particularly good economics teacher, though I am willing to listen to counter-arguments! People have many different motivations for choosing their academic goals, after all.

I am thinking about this because I am preparing to drove down to Fresno to attend the fall meeting of the Far Western Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers at CSU Fresno (there is still room if you want to drop everything you are doing and drive on into the center of California and see some excellent Sierra Nevada and Coast Range geology- details are here). I joined NAGT nearly fifteen years ago, and have found in my involvement with the organization a sense of history and tradition of excellent teachers, and a myriad of innovative ideas and approaches to the teaching of the geological sciences. It has been a real privilege to work and share ideas with my colleagues from California, Nevada and Hawaii, as well as from all over the country. It's one thing to be inspired to follow an academic discipline because of the work of one or two excellent teachers, and quite another to travel with a large group of talented and innovative teachers who are collectively inspiring hundreds of students. And for that matter, because we encourage students to attend these meetings, it is great to see how they are laying the groundwork for the future of the earth sciences.
1976...that was 34 years ago. Wow. I still have that orange Alpenlite backpack with the innovative wrap-around aluminum frame (I actually worked in their factory for a few months all those years ago). I tried it on the other day, the way someone might try on the tux they wore to the high school prom. And just like the tux, the aluminum frame must have shrunk. Aluminum can shrink, right? I know I haven't changed and gotten...bigger. The frame obviously has shrunk!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fossil Discovery Center in Madera County is Opening!

Painting by David Douglas for the Fossil Discovery Center

(Cross-posted at If you live anywhere near the geographical center of California, there is some exciting paleontology news! Since the early 1990's Fairmead Landfill has been the source of thousands of specimens of a diverse Pleistocene fauna, including horses, camels, mammoths, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths and many other fascinating inhabitants of the Central Valley thousands of years ago (I've posted several items about the excavations here and here). For years the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation has been planning to develop a center where students and visitors can learn about the intriguing history of our valley. And their plans are coming to fruition.

The San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation is sponsoring the Grand Opening Celebration of the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County. The journey began in 1993 with the discovery of a seven-foot mammoth tusk. Today their expedition into a pre-historic era continues, opening the past to students, scientists and community. Come and be a part of this historical event.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ribbon Cutting -10:00 a.m.

Reception—5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County
19450 Avenue 21 ½
Chowchilla, CA 93610
Take the Hwy 99 Exit 164, SW corner of Road 19 ½ & Avenue 21 ½

Refreshments will be served & tours provided.
San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation
Board of Directors

Come and check it out!