Geoscience Education

Learning at the Rock Quarry
Jan Childress

Back in the 1960s, when Philip E. LaMoreaux was State Geologist of Alabama, he quickly learned the value of communicating with kids. School children were not only interested in what he had to say about Alabama’s geologic features, but they also held onto that knowledge, taking those newly acquired facts home to their parents. Years later, when the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce created Adopt-A-School, a program that links classrooms to the business and private sectors in Tuscaloosa County, LaMoreaux’s consulting firm, P.E. LaMoreaux and Associates (PELA), wanted to be a part of it.

The company has a staff of hydrologists, geologists and engineers who know the geologic and physiographic detail of the county — each fork of the Black Warrior River (“Tuscaloosa” means “Black Warrior,” after a Choctaw chief) and the meandering path of the fall line where the Paleozoic Appalachian Orogenic Belt subducts under Mesozoic-Tertiary shelf sediments of the Gulf Coastal Plain. Tuscaloosa was on these falls at the meeting place of the Choctaw and Cherokee Indians, who were led by Chief Tuscaloosa.

Rock Quarry, a math-science magnet elementary school opened in 1998, and PELA joined with Merrill Lynch to create an Adopt-A-School partnership. The Chamber of Commerce’s Adopt-A-School program encourages businesses to become as involved with their “adopted” school as they wish. The partners are free to develop their own activities beyond a set of guidelines, utilizing the skills of their employees to best advantage. For example, PELA provides readers for classes, presents achievement awards to students and teachers, donates equipment, serves as resource speakers or tutors, or sponsors geologic field trips.

“We’re at the edge of the Warrior Coal Basin and have about 5,000 gas wells in the area,” LaMoreaux says. “So we might explain to groups of students about gas wells being drilled or describe how methane gas can be extracted from coal by drilling a well.”

“Recently, we took a class of third-graders to some fossil locations,” adds Phil’s son, Jim LaMoreaux, president and chairman of PELA. “We explained how water has carved out stream valleys in the unconsolidated layers of sand and clay that are common to this area. After showing the students how to identify fossils in the rocks, we talked about how those fossils can serve as marker beds for different geologic formations.” PELA staff members also tucked some history into their discussions by describing the Indian nations, primarily the Chocktaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes that once inhabited the area, and how they used chert for arrowheads, ocher for paint and clay for dishes.

At the close of each nine-week period, PELA presents an award to one student in each of Rock Quarry’s 32 homerooms. Since theirs is an environmental consulting firm, they want the award to relate to the physical Earth. Polished rock slices proved the perfect choice. “We hand out quartz, amethyst, obsidian arrowheads — things like that — and the kids love them,” Jim says. The students also receive certificates of merit featuring pictures of diamonds.

Teachers and staff, too, receive awards at the end of the school year. And throughout the academic year, PELA supplies teachers with earth-science curriculum materials, including the “Environmental Awareness Series” and the “Careers in the Geosciences” video, developed by the American Geological Institute. A collection box at PELA’s headquarters makes it easy for the staff to drop in items such as rock specimens that are taken to the school each month.

Other special activities are planned for Earth Science Week in October and for Groundhog Day in February, when several students are chosen to “shadow” PELA employees throughout a workday.

Andrea Melnick, a fourth-grade teacher at Tuscaloosa Academy, had heard of PELA’s work from a colleague at Rock Quarry Elementary School. In 2001, Melnick received a grant to set up a weather-monitoring station for her students, contingent upon receiving matching funds from another source. She approached Jim LaMoreaux about the project, and PELA agreed to provide the funds she needed. A rain gauge, water-level gauge, temperature gauge, and other equipment were installed at the academy last fall. Jim was on hand to show the students how to take measurements.

“This is standard commercial equipment, the same that we use,” Phil explains. “The children are not only taught how to record data, but also why this monitoring is necessary for farmers and others in the area.”

After measurements are taken, the youngsters post their findings on the Internet through GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), an international program that allows students to study real-time geophysical and atmospheric data from all over the world. The project has been so successful that Melnick intends to apply for another grant. PELA may also provide the academy with poster-sized graphics that explain how the weather station relates to the environment.

In Tuscaloosa County, more than 70 companies interact with local schools through programs such as Adopt-a-School. Phil LaMoreaux sees the difference it is making in the lives of the youngsters, their teachers, and parents as well as the PELA employees.

“Our investment in our children’s education and their schools is an investment in our community’s future and the future of our company,” he says. “There must be thousands of consulting businesses in the United States,” he adds. “Think of the impact they could make if they become involved with their schools.”

Childress is a former managing editor of Geotimes and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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