BOONE—A science professor who teaches how rocks, minerals and plant types in ancient coal swamps have shaped a region’s social and political history and influenced legislation in the U.S. has been honored for innovative teaching at Appalachian State University.
Dr. Sarah Carmichael, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and a member of the Appalachian studies faculty, is this year’s recipient of the Wayne D. Duncan Faculty Enrichment and Teaching Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching in General Education. She team teaches the course “The History of Coal: from the Pennsylvanian to the Present” with Tom Hansell, an assistant professor in the Appalachian studies program and co-director of University Documentary Film Services.
The $1,800 fellowship, presented by Appalachian’s University College and general education program, may be used for travel, equipment or other approved purposes for enhancement of the faculty member’s teaching and/or scholarship. The award was established in honor of Duncan, past chairman of Appalachian’s Board of Trustees and chairman of the Appalachian State University Foundation Board of Directors.
“The class embodies the mission and goals of General Education in that it is multidisciplinary, involves various exercises that encourage critical thinking, makes local to global connections, and reminds the students of their responsibility as members of the Appalachian (as well as local/regional/global) community,” wrote Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce, an associate professor in the Department of Geology.
“Carmichael and Hansell have developed various innovative and engaging teaching techniques to bring the course material to the students in a way that shows them how coal and coal mining affects each and every student in the course,” Liutkus-Pierce wrote.
Students in the course are expected to use a mixture of geochemical data, fossil and rock samples, documentary and dramatic film, newspaper and government documents, sociological texts and scientific literature in their work. Students also travel to the coalfields of Kentucky and Virginia on an overnight field trip, where they talk to miners, visit mines and spend the night in a historic coal camp.
Carmichael, who also teaches a variety of introductory and advanced undergraduate geology courses as well as the interdisciplinary geoscience/social science course, helps students understand connections among the sciences.
“As the courses I teach are very different from one another, my teaching philosophy is by necessity going to be different for each class,” she said. “However, I do have one theme that runs through all my courses, and that is this question: ‘how are these topics connected?’ Earth science is all about connections – with chemistry, with physics, with math and with biology. My goal in every class I teach is to show students the elegance of these connections, and make them aware of these cause/effect relationships.”
The history of coal class teaches the connections between geologic history; a region’s social and political history; and how the rocks, minerals and plant types in ancient coal swamps can influence legislation in the U.S. such as the Clean Air Act.
The environmental issues surrounding coal mining in the Appalachians have been highly politicized in the past decade, and this course was developed to get students to see past the “jobs vs. environment” narrative that’s been developed in response to activist talking points on both sides of the debate, and to understand the role that regional geology, labor history and national energy policy have on current events in the coalfields. By necessity, the course content evolves each year due to changes in proposed legislation, changing economic pressures on both the national and local level, and worldwide changes in energy consumption.
“At every level, I ask students to keep going back to what they learned earlier, to apply what they learned earlier – no topic exists in a vacuum,” she said. “It is my goal to make students recognize and understand these connections, either as future geoscientists or just as informed and thoughtful citizens.”
Dr. Patricia Beaver, director of the university’s Appalachian studies program wrote, “Sarah Carmichael has been particularly successful in introducing science content to students who were intimidated by the idea of science. Sarah has made the geology of coal understandable and manageable for her students. In turn, her students report that the knowledge of the science of coal has helped them better understand the history of the human-land relationships that developed with expansion of the coal industry, as well as our contemporary dependence on coal as we face the energy and environment demands of the present and future.”