An intensive summer camp gives teachers the geology experience of a lifetime.
I grew up in an area of Colorado that, during the Cretaceous period, was covered by a sea. The resulting landscape was incredible, and I frequently collected rocks and fossils as a child—boxes and boxes of them that my mother faithfully used in her flowerbeds. It was more than a hobby or a fleeting fascination; it was the start of a lifelong study of our world.
Today, I am what you call a geomorphologist. I study the surficial features of Earth, such as rock and ice glaciers, rivers and landslides. What I didn’t realize as a child is that geology is so much more than rocks and fossils. It is examining them and then asking why, how, when? Now, I seek to understand climate change, the evolution of landscapes, and hazards like landslides, avalanches and floods. I’ve traveled to all 50 states and six continents in these pursuits, and you can bet I still want to go to Antarctica. (And Mars!)
I began spreading my love for geology to a much broader audience in 2008 through an outreach program I developed in the College of Geosciences called G-Camp. Each summer, the program takes approximately 35 fifth through 12th grade teachers on a three-week field trip through the Southwestern United States to study geological features and develop grade school curricula.
We tour Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, visiting locations near sea level to those higher than 12,000 feet. Through astounding vistas and sights such as Enchanted Rock, White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns and the Garden of the Gods, we map Earth’s geological history. G-Camp puts teachers on the slopes of volcanoes, on the footwalls of faults, in the depths of glacial valleys, on the toes of landslides, and in pristine streams and ancient marine deposits.
When all is said and done, they too grasp that geology is much more than rocks and fossils. It is the foundation of 21st century society.
A few years ago, Texas added a fourth science to its core curriculum of biology, chemistry and physics: Earth and environmental science. The problem? Many teachers don’t have the necessary knowledge to adequately teach the subject, which results in incoming Aggie freshmen with little to no knowledge of geology. As a solution, we initiated G-Camp to better equip teachers who, in turn, pass their newfound knowledge to thousands of students each year.
Since the average geologist today is close to retirement—around 55 or 60 years old—workforce development is another serious concern. By ensuring that teachers are excited and knowledgeable about geology, we can do our part in attracting more young people to the field.
My motto for the camp is: “Show them a lot, keep them busy and you’ll never have a complaint.” So far, our participants have proved me right. Teachers spend 12-hour days in an exhausting but exhilarating whirlwind of learning. They keep a daily field book of sketches, measurements and general observations, and develop lesson plans each night. Post-trip, they present their knowledge and experiences to other teachers within their districts and at state and national meetings.
Many of our teachers go above and beyond the call of duty. Two of my favorite examples are Sue Garcia and Cheryl Hammons, who both attended G-Camp on our maiden voyage in 2008. Sue was a 25-year teaching veteran who collected nearly 200 pounds of rock specimens during the trip. To display her findings in her classroom, she built shelves and created placards so that her sixth grade pupils learned about each sample in detail.
Cheryl took it a step farther by conducting experiments with her middle school students. By dropping hydrochloric acid on rocks, students determined whether the samples were limestone or had traces of calcite. (Fizzing indicates a positive reaction.) For several years, Cheryl and her students also made jewelry from rocks and sold their creations to raise money for geology-based field trips.
Since Sue and Cheryl’s G-camp experience, applications continue to increase, reaching more than 700 this year. While we previously limited the trip to Texas teachers, we opened the trip nationally this year to extend our reach even further.
The cost to operate G-Camp is about $140,000 per year. Teachers pay for their travel to College Station, but everything else—from transportation and lodging to park fees and academic materials—is covered. Private gifts of cash from our lead sponsor Saudi Aramco, as well as donations from Chevron and ConocoPhillips, help cover much of the expense.
However, we need additional operational funding for the camp’s expansion, and an endowment through the Texas A&M Foundation would ensure this endeavor’s long-term security.
G-Camp is a sound investment not only because post-trip surveys show a massive increase in teacher confidence, but also because the geosciences discipline plays an increasingly important role in solving some of the 21st century’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change, clean water scarcity, natural disasters, and discovering new oil and gas fields.
The fact is, you don’t have to be a professional like me to get excited about geology. You just have to look at the landscapes around you and realize that there is much more than what meets the eye. To put it simply: You have to look beyond the surface.
The cost to operate G-Camp is about $140,000 per year. Much of the annual cost is covered through gifts from sponsors, but an additional endowment would ensure the program's long-term security. Endowments can be established with a gift of $25,000 or more.