Robert C. Thomas - Passion for Teaching Statement

I am originally from Pleasanton, Calif., where the loss of our family home to a landslide started my interest in geology at an early age. I am a first-generation college graduate and was encouraged to pursue a career as a teacher by a passionate instructor at a community college. Since then, I have never regretted a single day spent helping someone understand how the Earth works, especially during this critical time in history when we are searching for a sustainable path for humanity.

As an undergraduate, I had an extraordinary professor who once said, "We should burn down the buildings and teach out of vans." His point, of course, was that we learn through experience. Ever since, my passion has been to teach geology to students in the field.

I had the great fortune of landing a teaching position in one of the best natural labs in North America, and so my primary educational goal has been to use the outdoor classroom to engage students in direct experience with how the Earth works.

To make that dream possible, I helped to lead the effort to make the University of Montana Western the first public university in U.S. history to adopt an experiential, immersion-learning scheduling system called "Experience One." In this system, the students take a single course for 18 instructional days. This model is so unique in public higher education that I am constantly asked to publish and speak about Experience One by colleagues who are curious about the merits of this approach.

As an example of how I use this system, my students conducted a project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 that analyzed stream restoration on the upper Big Hole River in southwest Montana. This work is being done with local ranchers to help preserve the fluvial Arctic grayling, an endangered fish species in the United States.

Under my supervision, undergraduate students produced an impressive 150-page assessment report in 18 days. The report was submitted to the supervising federal agency where it will be used to assess and adjust the restoration efforts. The Nature Conservancy featured the project nationally, and the students received public recognition from the governor of Montana and other public officials.

As a result of many years of work on field-based teaching, I received the Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America in 2007 and the Distinguished Alumni Award from Humboldt State University in 2008. In addition, I was recently elected into Fellowship at the Geological Society of America for contributions to experiential education in the geosciences. All of this, and I didn't have to burn down a single building!

Although I am proud of these accomplishments, my goal is to inspire students to share my passion for understanding how the Earth works. In my experience, this happens when I treat them as professionals, have high expectations of what they can accomplish and involve them in meaningful, real-world projects.

I feel privileged to be working with undergraduate students, especially the non-majors. During the last 16 years, I have taught more than 100 introductory-level classes. As a result, I reach future K-12 teachers, civic leaders and citizens who need to understand how the Earth works. This generation will see environmental change that is unparalleled in modern society. It is my hope that each student I reach learns to be a better steward of the planet.


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