Texas Teachers Learn Science From Mining Industry At 'Coal Camp'

Rose Huckaby teaches science to sixth graders in Pasadena, a town in the heart of the biggest concentration of petrochemical plants in the nation.

But this summer she’s learning about another form of energy: coal.

Welcome to coal camp.

Huckaby is spending five days at a coal mine in Jewett, Texas, about two and a half hours north of Houston.

This coal mine isn’t like deep mines underground or mountain-top mining.

It’s a strip mine. Operators use a massive machine — as tall as a football field is long — to scrape away the top layers of earth and extract the coal.

coal
Teachers saw the process of strip-mining. First, operators use a massive machine, called a drag line, to remove the top layers of soil and extract the coal. Trucks carry the coal to a stockpile. One truck can carry 120-150 tons of coal; trucks can do as many as 15 loads in 24 hours at the mine in Jewett. Then the coal is put on a conveyor system and arrives at the NRG plant next to the coal mine. The power plant uses the coal to generate electricity. Photo by: Victor Palomares

Now Huckaby and the 20 other teachers at this coal camp are visiting areas that have been restored after the coal’s been removed.

“I’ve been really amazed to see how everything goes right back better than it was,” Huckaby says. She’s looking out over a grassy field with trees and the NRG plant in the distance, where the coal is used to generate electricity.

Since 1991, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association has been hosting teacher workshops.

It spends about $100,000 a year on coal camp and other mining workshops for Texas science teachers, says Francye Hutchins, the group’s education director.

“It costs the teachers nothing. We pay for their hotel, we provide all their meals. We provide all the curriculum materials,” she says.

Hutchins says they want to teach teachers about both the mining industry and the science behind it — plus give teachers a way to connect science to the real world, given the jobs in the industry.

soil testing
Soil testing – Teachers tested soil samples to find out things like their acidity. Photo by: Victor Palomares

Coal is an increasingly controversial source of energy, as the Obama Administration is targeting coal-burning power plants for contributing to climate change.

Electric power plants account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to the EPA. Many of them still burn coal.

While Texas is known for its oil and gas industry, it also ranks number five in the country for coal production.

At coal camp, the mining industry wants to tell coal’s side of the story, and the science behind it.

Denny Kinglsey, president of the Texas Westmoreland Mining Company in Jewett, says they want to give an “unbiased” view about their work.

“Just a fair message of what we do, how we do it and why it’s important,” he adds.

Some question if it’s really possible for the mining industry to give an unbiased view of coal.

Gale Sinatra, a professor at the University of Southern California, has no problem with teachers attending the coal camp, but hopes they use their critical thinking skills.

“Does the source of the information have an agenda? And does that agenda go beyond the science? If that’s the case, then you should be thoughtful of that and mindful of that,” says Sinatra, who studies how science is taught around the country.

There are also questions about the curriculum offered at coal camp.

Adrian Shelley with Air Alliance Houston takes a look at the agenda for the five-day workshop and immediately has reservations about the lesson plan.

“As part of an hour and half lesson here, among several bullets here — a talk about mining’s effect on ground and surface water,” he says.

He questions if 90 minutes was adequate to cover the environmental costs of coal and he saw nothing on the agenda about health impacts, like how coal emissions can cause asthma attacks in children.

“Coal is a 19th century energy. And here in the 21st century, when the coal industry goes out of its way to sponsor what I would consider to be essentially a PR campaign for the industry that ignores the significant health and environmental consequences of that industry, and more importantly ignores the fact that coal is dirty, outdated industry —  that is something I have serious concerns about,” Shelley says.

Coal camp has the official approval of the Texas Education Agency. It has certified the mining industry group to provide continuing education to teachers.

So teachers who attend can earn credit toward renewing their teaching certificate.

Coal camp is so popular there’s a waiting list of teachers who want to attend. Other mines featured at the industry workshops include the Big Brown Mine near Dallas.

Julie Duane, who teaches in the Alvin Independent School District, says she’s aware the presenters at the coal mine are biased about their livelihood.

She signed up for coal camp because she had only ever seen bad press about the industry. She came with an open mind.

“I mean, I teach environmental science, but I’m not going to call myself an environmentalist. Because you know I live in Texas — I like my AC. So I know it’s a necessary process. We all love our electronics. We love our air-conditioning. We all love our cars,” Duane says.

All photos by KUHF intern Victor Palomares.

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