We asked applicants for the NCSE Grand Canyon Teacher Scholarship to explain, in 500 words, what lessons or knowledge they expected to gain from rafting the Grand Canyon, to enrich their students’, colleagues’, and neighbors’ understanding of evolution, deep time, climate change, and the natural world. Here is part of scholarship winner Scott Hatfield’s explanation of what he hopes to bring back from the Grand Canyon to his Fresno, California, high school. Hatfield and Alyson Miller will receive an all-expenses-paid trip down the Grand Canyon, thanks to generous donations from NCSE supporters.
Why would a middle-aged man run the rapids of the Grand Canyon? You might get cold, after all, and you will certainly get wet and feel aches and pains. There will certainly be inconveniences. So why do it? For me, the answer is clear: it is a story that must be told, and it is a story that can best be told by those who experience it, first hand.
This story, written in the rocks, shows that the whole world, which appears to be so solid and unchanging, is really as much of a river as the Colorado itself. This is surprisingly easy to overlook. Virtually everyone is impressed by the Canyon, but all too often that impression is merely one of physical scale: “that’s a really big hole you’ve got there, and it’s awful pretty.” Yes, but it’s more than that. For the mind prepared to couple imagination to observation, the layers of rock reveal a world in flux.
My job, as a science teacher, is to provide the observations and kindle imagination, to bring students to the point where they are willing to think deeply about the big ideas in science, and then put those ideas to the test. What John McPhee called “deep time” is hard for humans to imagine. We don’t live on that time scale, and for many of my students, direct observation of something like the Grand Canyon is outside their experience. My students live less than hour’s drive from some of the largest living things on Earth. Nevertheless, many have never seen the sequoias, much less Yosemite, another hour to the north.
Given that reality, a teacher’s personal experience, vividly recounted, can make all the difference in the world in terms of engaging the student. A fossil in your hand is always more intriguing when you know how and where it was brought to light. Visiting the Galápagos in 2010 didn’t change any of the things I have taught my biology students, but it altered the way I perceived evolution, and how I chose to teach it subsequently. When you share your direct experiences with students in a way that relates to content, you are showing that you are committed to the topic at hand, that it means something to you, something important.
And this perspective is important. Whether it’s the fossil record of past diversity, or what the rocks tell us about climate change today, we won’t really “get it” unless we combine observation, experiment, and imagination. That’s where the story comes in, that’s where the “lived story” of the teacher’s adventures holds sway. It is my hope that the next time I teach “deep time,” I won’t just hold up a piece of the Bright Angel Shale, with dozens of inky black trilobites. I’ll be able to say, “This is the Bright Angel Shale, and one morning I saw this sort of rock, so many feet above me…in a bend in the river.”