Owen Hopkins wants to rock the schoolhouses -- literally.
But that is down the road a ways.
In the meantime, Hopkins has a plan to plant the seeds of geologic and scientific curiosity in students -- and a map to get there.
Hopkins, an AAPG member and president of the Corpus Christi Geological Society, has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the first phase of his educational mission to have a U.S. Geological Survey Time and Terrain Map of the United States mounted prominently and permanently in every school with fifth and sixth graders in the Coastal Bend area of South Texas.
And there is talk and hope of expanding the project to a national scale.
“He’s been getting a great reception,” said Paul Strunk, president of American Shoreline in Corpus Christi, a former AAPG treasurer and a member of the AAPG Foundation Board of Trustees.
Hopkins only launched his project in 2006, but by this past mid-March about 65 schools had received the laminated, framed maps, plus rock and bone specimens and a talk delivered by Hopkins or other local geologists.
A label on each map credits the CCGS for the gift.
The initial goal is to place the colorful, informative maps in 100 schools by year’s end. Eventually, Hopkins wants to place maps in all 200 area schools.
At $150 per map, the project will cost about $30,000.
In his talks to the students, Hopkins tells them that they are now fifth or sixth graders and are about to learn something the younger students -- and some of their teachers -- don’t know.
He relates four facts about the map. He draws on popular references like the book and movie “Jurassic Park,” noting that Jurassic age rocks are a particular color on the map and those areas are where the pupils might find dinosaur footprints or fossils.
He asks schools to hang the maps at students’ eye level in high traffic areas like hallways or cafeterias. He challenges his listeners to share something they know about the map with anyone they see looking at it.
“It might be another student, or even the principal,” Hopkins said. “You might actually teach the principal something -- how cool is that?”
Lighting the Fire
Hopkins’ enthusiasm is contagious.
After he outlined his project at a CCGS meeting members donated $8,000 -- and as of April the society had collected $15,000 from members and the community. The Don Boyd Continuing Education Fund also contributes to the project.
Other members have stepped up to make presentations at schools as well, Hopkins said.
Talking and networking has sparked interest at other geological societies. Hopkins said he has been invited to speak at meetings in Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pa., and geologists in Russia and Poland have expressed interest in mounting similar efforts.
“Maybe this is something other societies could do,” he said, noting that funding is a problem for many local organizations.
Strunk agrees that the idea could grow.
“This needs to be looked at very closely from an overall AAPG standpoint,” Strunk said.
“All societies should be doing this -- every geological society in the United States -- not just AAPG,” Strunk said.
AAPG has several initiatives to bolster earth science education, including scholarships to students and grants to outstanding teachers.
“This goes beyond that,” Strunk said. “This is stimulating scientific curiosity in young students and their teachers. His (Hopkins’) entry is great, he leaves a good impression ... he’s excited and we’re excited.”
A flyer distributed at a recent gem and minerals show inviting teachers to request a map for their schools netted 54 responses, Hopkins said.
More Than Maps
As encouraging as the response has been, “Maps in Schools” is just the first part of what Hopkins envisions as a “three-pronged educational attack,” which he hopes to continue through 2010.
Phase 2 is “Safari in South Texas -- 2007-08.” Hopkins wants to expose students to ancient bones and fossils found regionally.
Again, Hopkins emphasizes taking the objects to the students, not vice versa.
A gravel pit west of Corpus Christi is a trove of Pleistocene mammal bones, he said.
“I’ve collected hundreds from there -- I have a mammoth tooth as big as your head.”
“The diversity of species in this county matches that of the La Brea Tar Pits,” he added, another tidbit he likes to relay to students.
Texas A&M University at Kingsville has a huge collection of La Brean fauna bones stored in back rooms, Hopkins said.
“They have thousands of bones and fragments -- all local. They have 12-foot tusks, bison, horses, tapirs, armadillos the size of Volkswagens, saber tooths ... .
“They don’t know what to do with them.”
“These need to be in schools.”
Whenever Hopkins speaks to a class, he leaves a rolled time-terrain map and some bones, fossils or rock samples for the classroom.
He wants a more visible, permanent place for specimens.
While display cases can be expensive, “every school has a trophy case,” he said. “Why not dedicate a portion of each case to a bone?”
Hopkins would like to include artists’ renditions of the complete skeleton and what the live animals, along with a paleogeographic map showing what the area looked like when the animal was alive.
Back to rocking the schoolhouse. That is Phase 3 of Hopkins’ vision.
He would like to include large, 300-pound specimens of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks into the landscaping in front of schools.
The boulders would be too big to steal, and each could have a brass plate bolted to it explaining its age, where it was found and how it was formed. Contributors to the project also would be credited.
Field trips are among activities cut back when schools are strapped for funds, Hopkins said.
“If trips are so expensive, then take the trips to the schools -- take the outcrops to the schools,” Hopkins said.
“You could have a field trip in your front yard,” he said.
By sparking students’ interest in science early, schools might help raise students’ performance on science tests, Hopkins said.
The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test includes 40 science questions, 10 of them dealing with earth sciences, he said. He was told at one school that students typically averaged 90-93 percent on life science questions but only 76 percent on earth sciences.
Hopkins is pleased and excited about the progress of the first phase of his self-proclaimed mission -- and believes money will be found for the project.
“We have 345 members in a town of 300,000. I think we are making a difference,” he said.
Hopkins said the Corpus Christi society would have less trouble raising money for such a project than many others.
“I don’t worry about money. I’m treating it like an oil deal -- this is my prospect. Good prospects will get funded.”