For the third time in six years, AAPG's Teacher of the Year hails from Southern California, a place more known for its love of Pilates (for us "un-hip," that's the latest exercise vogue) than its love of petroleum exploration.
And for the second time, the teacher is from Santa Barbara.
Marilyn Bachman is the 2005 AAPG Teacher of the Year (TOTY), a $5,000 award funded by the AAPG Foundation and presented for "Excellence in the Teaching of Natural Resources in the Earth Sciences."
Bachman, a 35-year teaching veteran, teaches sixth grade science and math at the Montecito Union School in Santa Barbara, where she has taught since 1986.
Last year's TOTY was Mike Fillipow, from Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., and the 2000 awardee was Peggy Lubchenco, of La Colina Junior High School in Santa Barbara, where the relationship between the petroleum industry and environmentalists usually resembles the one between the Reverend James Dobson and Planned Parenthood.
Bachman, however, says that relationship doesn't have to be dysfunctional.
"Students living in Santa Barbara -- and especially minutes from the beach -- are definitely environmentally sensitive, but they are not politically biased," Bachman said. "I have lots of students who surf, bike, hike and ski, so caring for the environment is a top interest and priority for them."
Bachman is in Who's Who in American Teachers; was named Distinguished Educator in Santa Barbara County in 2000; and received awards with words like "inspirational" and "excellence and mentor" in the title. Saying retirement will be "the saddest day of my life," she can't name another occupation she'd rather be doing.
For Bachman, teaching earth science is like being an actress in a play in which she both writes and directs.
"And then if the audience applauds -- in my case, if you see the students excited -- what more could you ask for?
"I love it more now than I did 35 years ago."
Bachman, whose husband is a geologist and daughter is an earth science teacher, has traveled extensively throughout the world and says those trips "have made me who I am, the teacher I am -- all the geology trips over the years."
Mixing Science and Society
The world is one thing, California is another. Depending on the point-of-view, it is a place either held hostage by Big Oil or cowed by the Sierra Club.
Perhaps in other areas teachers don't have to assuage the fears and preconceptions of sixth graders and their parents, but this is California, a place about which Joan Didion described as: "People have the sense that things had better work out in California, because here, underneath this enormous bleached sky, we run out of continent."
Asked if she's an environmentalist out to protect that sky at all costs, Bachman says: "Possibly, but I'm a realist. We all need fuel, and then I see their parents driving their SUV and then complain about drilling for oil. Kids find out most people understand both sides of the issue. Everything we can do to protect the environment, we should."
Bachman concedes her students are probably more sensitive than their peers in other states.
"I do think my students are more keenly aware of the environment than students were 15 years ago," she said. "Drilling for oil in the offshore is a huge concern to them, and oil spills are of critical concern. Many of (them) come to class expressing concern about high gas prices, oil companies making a killing, etc. Some express concern about drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas.
"In the resources unit, I deal with the realities of the need and uses of natural resources," she continued. "The best thing I have done is to take students down to the beach in Carpinteria to observe the natural oil seeps. This makes a big impression on them. Students suddenly realize that oil seeps out of the ground naturally. This experience, alone, makes them think a bit more carefully.
"Now when they go to the beach and get tar on their feet, they don't immediately think that it is seeping out of the oil platforms offshore!"
As a further example, Bachman explains, "In their research, they discover that companies like Chevron have learned to drill in Indonesia in a way that has the least possible affect on the environment. So, generally, my students show an interest in both sides of the issue and they begin to learn the complex ways in which various factors in our environment interface."
A Special Teacher
It takes a special teacher to teach about resources and the environment to 11- and 12-year olds whose hormones are beginning to meringue, but Bachman says it can be done.
She says it is most important to employ teaching methods that lead to self-discovery.
"In the lab itself, I always structure the lab so they discover the answer."
"The most important thing I do is remind them that oil comes out of rock on its own. It doesn't come from oil rigs."
And it seems to be working.
She then tells a story about one of her students.
"The La Conchita landslide occurred recently and one student came to class saying, 'Well, they should have known that water shapes the earth -- everyone could see that La Conchita was at the base of a landslide ... I still feel sorry for the people who died, though!'"
Natural disasters, from floods to earthquakes to fires to tornadoes, are part of the California psyche, so Bachman believes it's important to present the oil and petroleum lessons in a factual, open manner.
"It is essential that students learn where oil and gas deposits are found," she said. "We have a great example in Santa Barbara with the offshore oil wells in the Santa Barbara Channel. When the oil production stopped and the oil companies wanted to remove the platforms at the base, students followed the debate in the community."
In that debate, Bachman said that environmentalists lobbied to have the platforms cut off at a safe distance just below the surface so that the ecosystem of subsurface plants and animals could continue to inhabit the platform ecosystem. The fishermen wanted the oil platforms removed at the base because they were concerned about their fishnets getting caught on the subsurface platform.
"This is an example of how I engage students in discussions about the effect of industry decisions on the ecosystem," she said. "When discussing recent oil exploration in the United States, most students realize the dependency that the U.S. has on foreign oil ... and are very concerned about politics in the Middle East. We research and discuss the need for the U.S. to conserve oil and to become less dependent upon foreign oil.
In winning the TOTY award, AAPG bestows $2,500 to Bachman, as well as $2,500 to her school. Calling herself "completely honored and amazed" when told she won the award, she says she received notification during an early morning phone call that was patched through to her classroom.
"I thought 'Oh, great, this must be a parent,'" she says, laughing.
Some day, a teacher winning an award for the teaching of natural resources in the earth sciences will hold up her certificate and say, "I'm going to Disneyworld," but Bachman wished for something less gaudy:
"I wanted a seismograph."
Eventually, she and the school decided to use the school's portion of the money to fund more hands-on activities for students in lower grades.
As for Bachman, with the seismograph on hold, she wants to take her portion of the money and take another defining trip -- this time to the Galapagos Islands.
"Now, if only I can get someone to go with me."