Science in the Middle

doing 6th grade science – outside the box!

How geology came alive for me

on June 1, 2016

In spring of 2008, sitting at the campfire circle at Jekyll Island 4H Center, the news was delivered to me, all of my 5th grade students and my fellow teachers. “Next year, Mrs. Oltman will not be a 5th grade science teacher anymore,” stated my colleague Ann. Stunned silence, then noises of pre-teen disapproval. “She will be a 6th grade science teacher at Kittredge!” Cheers! Applause! Hugs!  My students were happy to have the opportunity to have Mrs. Oltman again for science!

As good as that made me feel, I was apprehensive, and not sold on the idea myself. I enjoyed 10 year olds! I loved guiding students in building jello cells, dissecting frogs, and constructing electric circuits! But now – rocks? Space? Nothing living! It wasn’t my idea, but now it was official, that’s where I was needed.

In August, my teaching partner shared his expertise unselfishly, and answered my endless questions. Formal lesson plans lacking, I delved into the rock kits, determined to master them, even if I didn’t love them. Inanimate rocks. How would I make them fun? Fun was my hallmark! Students enjoyed coming to science, and this would continue – it was a non-negotiable for me.

A national parks fan, I planned our summer trip that year to visit the Grand Canyon and Zion. At the end of June, my husband and I flew out west and began our adventure. One of the first tours we did was “Canyon Dave’s Geology Tour.” In a small group along the South Rim, we learned the history of the beautiful layers revealed by the Colorado River cutting through northern Arizona. The rocks talk – they tell a story! And a beautiful story it was.

Over the next days, our journey continued through the Vermillion Cliffs, the Petrified Forest, and the shockingly deserted North Rim. I could feel the glory of God in all of this – when drenched in the natural world, I feel an intense closeness to our Creator. We rafted in Glen Canyon and around Horseshoe Bend, carried by the very forces of nature that carved this exquisite landscape.

Driving west, we entered Zion National Park at sunset – dead camera batteries forced me to take this in live, undistracted. It was an otherworldly experience, waves of pink sandstone mounds along a twisty descending highway and tunnel – illuminated by the setting sun. Rocks talking once again!


Coyote Butte North – Arizona

The next morning, we hiked up the Virgin River in a slot canyon called The Narrows – surrounded by soaring walls of colorful sedimentary rock, sculpted in beautiful ways at eye level, traveling in July in cool comfort due to the ever deepening flow of the river. Time forgotten, we walked on until up to our chest in water, realizing we had to turn around, and it was then we were surprised to find we’d been walking for four hours!

I could go on and on about this trip. Volcanoes. Ancient preserved Native American villages. But the bottom line is that with my love of national parks, I had been taking for granted all this time the backdrop and the stories the rocks told. What did the earth under my feet hold, how did it get to look the way it did? What caused the differences in all of these places that drew me in like a magnet? These magnificent features of our American Southwest were different from the mountains I had hiked thus far. Having limped through teaching geology for the first time, I was now primed to take in the scientific nature of the places I was drawn to. The impact it made on me carried on through my future travels – To Acadia National Park, Mount St. HelensIMG_4172, Glacier Park (below)

and more. My suitcase on the return trip from all of these places would forevermore hold samples of my new love.

Teaching something new that you’re not comfortable with isn’t all bad. Yes, there was some fake it till you make it in there. Embracing this opportunity and wanting to do it well enriched my life well beyond my expectations. Although this story has been with me for a while, the 100th Anniversary of our National Parks system is the perfect time to share it. Happy Summer!



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