Around the [Big] Bend

TexasFromSpace

More pictorial perspective from the Texas A&M Viz Lab’s Glen Vigus, who was recently on location in another of Texas’ finest stretches — Big Bend National Park. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I want to vacation with him — so breathtakingly gorgeous, there’s no need for captions. Well, save for Picture No. 37 (…wait for it…)

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“After a successful day of surveying the property on the Terlingua Ranch (we were ahead of schedule), we spent nine hours the following day exploring Big Bend National Park … and we only scratched the surface,” Glen writes. “It’s hard to believe this place exists in Texas. I plan to return in the future to hike the trails and reach the top of Emory Peak.”

I Am Just a Teacher

The following is a guest post from Patricia Oliver ’11, a 10th grade chemistry and 9th grade Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. A 2011 graduate of Texas A&M University and a member of the aggieTEACH Program, Oliver earned both her bachelor’s of science degree in university studies (2011) and a master’s of education degree in education curriculum and instruction (2012) at Texas A&M. Earlier this month, she was honored with the 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award — a prestigious honor that includes a $5,000 personal award as well as $5,000 for Oliver to spend on her classroom.

Patricia Oliver '11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Patricia Oliver ’11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

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I am a just teacher. Every year, there comes a point when I contemplate that statement. When people ask me what I do, I automatically answer, “I am a teacher.” And to any non-teacher, that translates to: I talk to students, I grade papers and then I go home. Anyone can do that.

There are many examples of this that all teachers can relate to. One that springs to mind is when a man I was talking to said, “Oh! So you just went to college to get your Mrs. degree?” after hearing I was a teacher. Or it’s commonly assumed that I teach elementary. People are generally shocked when I tell them I teach high school chemistry, often responding with, “Wow! You must be smart, then!” Does that mean if I taught anything else, I am not smart?

The title of “teacher” doesn’t scream intelligence to non-teachers. It is sad that society views the teaching profession in that way. It makes every teacher feel inferior. People’s views of my profession make me second-guess myself all the time. I never think I’m working hard enough. Doing enough. Providing enough. It’s stupid, isn’t it?

This year, I was awarded the STEM innovation teaching award. I had students come hug me and tell me that I was the reason they walked across the stage. But even in those moments of validation, I think I’m not deserving. I feel guilty that I’m being praised for a job well done, because I don’t think I did anything amazing. It’s just my job. I am just a teacher.

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver '11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver ’11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

Today, while sitting at lunch at a conference with 2,000 other teachers during my vacation time, I received a text from a former student who recently graduated:

“Ms. Oliver, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for me! You’ve always been there when I had a problem or I needed somebody to talk to. You’ve impacted my life for the best, and I can’t thank you enough for everything! You’ve looked out for me and guided me in the right path. I love you so much, and I know you might hear this from a lot of students, but I honestly mean it. You’re like a mother, sister, best friend and mentor to me. I honestly don’t know where I would be without your guidance. I’m honestly going to miss you so much, but I’ll still, hopefully, go to feed the homeless. Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for everything! I love you from the bottom of my heart! You were and forever will be my favorite teacher.”

The message was sent completely out the blue. I immediately started to cry. When I asked why she sent the text, she responded, “I was just thinking about my high school years and, well, you were in most of it.” My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous! I didn’t pay enough attention to you! I couldn’t possibly mean that much to you.” I am just a teacher.

Then I realized something … never once did she talk about all the chemistry she learned! She didn’t mention all the papers I graded or how the immediate feedback I gave her was so influential! Funny, isn’t it?

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

I am more than just a teacher. Like my student said, I am a “mother, sister, best friend and mentor.” I am a counselor, sounding board, advice-giver, mediator and thought-provoker. I change lives.

I am so much more than a teacher, and I am proud.

I could go on forever. But I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Beautiful, Beautiful Texas

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and between you and me, there are miles and miles of it in the state of Texas.

I remember well in my college years the 525-mile drive from Aggieland back to my hometown of Nazareth in the Texas Panhandle. It wasn’t for the faint of heart nor bladder, and keep in mind that was back in the days before smart phones and portable DVD players. Thank goodness growing up there acclimated me to long stretches of nothingness and having to drive many a mile to get to the nearest grocery store, shopping mall or, heck, even another town with actual people.

Possibly as a result, I’m well versed in both self-entertainment and resiliency, not to mention fiercely proud of and loyal to the area, probably to a fault. Where most people only see barren, flat and boring, I see wide open spaces, endless horizons, room for a view and to breathe, and acres upon acres of rugged, untamed, abundant beauty precisely as nature intended.

Palo Duro Canyon, exhibit A in Texas Panhandle natural beauty, as captured here complete with a rainbow by Open Skies Photography’s Richard Douglass. It is the second-longest canyon in the United States behind the Grand Canyon and one of several located in the so-called “land of the inverted mountains,” labeled as such because the area is relatively flat until you reach the long and steep canyons, highlighted by Palo Duro and Caprock Canyons to the south. (Credit: Richard Douglass.)

I really didn’t grasp until college that the area we affectionately referred to as West Texas growing up wasn’t truly West Texas, despite the fact that it was home to the institution formerly known as West Texas State University (present-day West Texas A&M University) and that our New Mexico state champion 16-and-under Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team was the Wes-Tex Sandies. To this day, West Texas is the one area of the state that I haven’t explored, and a such, it remains at the top on my short list.

Until that day, however, I have a dream and the luxury of vicarious living through pictures, from those regularly posted on McDonald Observatory’s Facebook page to the following beauts captured by fellow Aggie Glen Vigus.

I first met Glen during a past professional life in the Texas A&M College of Architecture — mine in communications and his in the now-world-famous Viz Lab, which he’s been a member of since 1998. Like so many others in the Texas A&M Department of Visualization, Glen is incredibly talented and perpetually perched on the cutting edge, from his print and digital photography to his educational efforts and insight that I would describe as a delightful mix of “how-to meets follow-me!” Although I don’t get to see him in-person much anymore, I’m routinely privy to his artistry and creativity through Facebook. So are you, thanks to his generosity of spirit in agreeing to share his Terlingua Ranch album and the related backstory for the Texas A&M Science blog.

Not unlike a Jerry Jeff Walker song, I told Glen that I think it offers the perfect blend of geography, geology and earth science with sides of astronomy and atmospheric sciences thrown in for the good educational measure that’s so important during the summer months.

I’ll let Glen take it from here — both the words and the wordless. On that latter front, like any good storyteller, I think he saved the best for last.

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“Years ago, my dad purchased land on the Terlingua Ranch. I never knew why he was so excited about this place until I saw it. Early one morning (4 a.m.), I accompanied my dad, brother-in-law and nephew on a 10-hour drive to Terlingua. The main purpose of our journey was to survey and mark my dad’s property. It is a different world in this part of Texas. It’s isolation and natural beauty are something to behold. I’m looking forward to the next visit … I just wish it wasn’t so far away.”

Check out Day 2 of Glen’s waltz across West Texas: Big Bend National Park.

Marking Time

Ever wonder what mathematicians do on vacation? In Texas A&M professor Wolfgang Bangerth’s case, he kicked off summer 2015 by hiking through history related to another of his disciplinary specialties: geophysics.

A widely respected expert in computational mathematics and mathematical modeling, Bangerth is the author of the software program ASPECT (Advanced Solver for Problems in Earth’s Convection). His code is helping geodynamics researchers around the world visualize the Earth’s interior and related processes, thanks to funding assistance from a major facility in California at the epicenter of geodynamics research.

Earlier today, Bangerth found himself at the site of one of the worst geological disasters in U.S. history, Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Roughly one month after the 35th anniversary of the historic eruption, Bangerth toured the area, posting these incredible photographs on Facebook and agreeing to share them via the Texas A&M Science blog.

“What a treat,” Bangerth writes, “A seven-hour hike through the devastation area and then halfway up Mount St. Helens. (Additional treat: Total number of people encountered in the first six hours: 1. In fact that equals the total number of mammals encountered during this time.)”


In addition to the photos and captions, Bangerth — ever the educator — offered to expound on the science as follows:

“So here’s the story: Mount St. Helens is one of the chain of Cascade volcanos along the U.S. West Coast that exist because the Pacific (or, more exactly, the Juan De Fuca plate) subducts beneath the North American plate. They take with them millions of years of sediments, entrapped water, etc., and this leads to melting of material when they get to certain depths, and this melt then comes up a couple of 100 miles inland of the subduction zone.

“In 1980, magma rising up bulged out the side of the volcano. After an earthquake, this whole bulge collapsed in a gigantic landslide. Liberated of the pressure of the overlying rock, two enormous explosions then ripped apart most of the mountain within seconds of the landslide. There is a fantastic video of this created from a sequence of 10 or 15 pictures and also another series here.

“What you see in my pictures are the remains of the volcano (1,300 feet shorter than it was before, with its enormous gash on one side) and the valley below the landslide and miles downstream from there — in some places up to 700 feet of debris, ash and the results of several later pyroclastic flows. The deep incisions are streams that have eroded this loose material.

“The landscape is largely barren since it had, of course, not a single living organism left after the 1980 event, and is only slowly re-growing. Along the streams there are man-high trees these days, but elsewhere you only find bare gravel and sand — some covered by hardy mosses and lichens — and in many places lots of miniature bluebonnets and some Indian paintbrushes. There are ants and a few insects, but generally few vertebrates. I did see a small number of birds, including a pair of hummingbirds. By and large, it’s a huge contrast from the densely forested areas around the mountain (and how it looked before the event, as seen in older pictures).”

When Research Gets Wild

Scientists often go to great lengths for their research, but sometimes it gets downright risky.

Grace Smarsh ’14 is a Ph.D. candidate who has been working in the lab of Dr. Michael Smotherman, Texas A&M University biologist and a leading expert on bat behavior. Grace spent a total of 17 months during a three-year period in Tanzania studying the songs of its native heart-nosed bat to probe how their vocal ranges adapt to different social interactions. While on her quest to observe the winged creatures, Grace had to learn to coexist with the land-dwellers of the African bush, from the tiniest of insects to some pretty large cats.

Here’s Grace, discussing some of her encounters and how she coped with her rank in the animal kingdom.