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Geologist Uses Quake in a Real-Life Lesson : Her visit helps students to gain a better understanding of what happened and why.


Last week I visited Dos Caminos Elementary School in Camarillo to see how a bunch of 8-year-olds would respond to a real-life geologist. It was right after the earthquake, although the visit by scientist Elizabeth Weed had been scheduled for weeks.

So it was a coincidence that she met with the 31 kids and their teacher, Janice Clark, only 18 hours after they all had to dive under their school desks during a 5.1 aftershock. The previous day, nervous parents had kept half the class home because of the 6.6 quake. Would there be panicky questions? Soothing reassurances? A chasm between information-disadvantaged kids and an information-over-advantaged scientist?

Weed works in Ventura County for a branch of the U. S. Department of the Interior, which bears a name as grand as its sphere of activities--Pacific Outer Continental Shelf Regional Office of the Minerals Management Service. The office regularly lends its scientists to county schools to help teachers in earth science classes.

"I became a geologist because rocks are fun," Weed said. She then added in a more serious tone, "but they do move around."

Weed then polled the class about their recent earthquake experience. One boy, Mason Lauritson, cheerfully reported that a bookcase had fallen on him. He did seem to have a slight trace of a black eye.

"My mom gave me an aspirin and I went back to bed," he said.

A third of the class, in a show of hands, indicated that they had slept through the main quake.

The kids made several observations that indicated a keen interest in earth science that was more than 38 hours old. "You guys have studied rocks!" Weed said.

It was at that moment that I noticed a hand-lettered poster on the classroom wall with the title "What Is The Earth Made Of?"

Weed, meanwhile, was leading a class discussion of rocks, and the kids were throwing around terms like metamorphic, sedimentary and igneous.

Suddenly I was afraid Weed might call on me to answer a question.

Fortunately, the conversation quickly returned to earthquakes. One child asked the difference between new earthquakes and aftershocks. The answer--remember you read it first in Earthwatch--is that aftershocks happen on the same epicenter, whereas a new quake has a different epicenter.

After the class, the teacher showed Weed some student projects made as part of the earth sciences study unit. Suddenly I realized why the children had been so composed about the topic at hand. Each of them had, several weeks prior, made a little paper model of tectonic plates--a sort of origami puzzle showing how subterranean forces work to cause earthquakes.

"This is probably why the kids know more than their parents do," ventured Clark.

Weed and I departed for our normal appointed rounds. She, with her colleagues, to inspect drilling rigs and shut them down if they're about to leak or mess up the ocean floor. Me to write a story about kids' sophistication about earth science and the hope that sparks, at least in me, for the future of the earth.

Richard Kahlenberg, who writes the weekly Earthwatch column, has been reporting on the environment since Earth Day I. Nowadays he recycles everything. You can write to him at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura, 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.


* FYI: Ventura County schools have access to a variety of scientists--geologists, biologists and ecologists--for presentations in class courtesy of the local office of the U. S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service. Call John Romero at 389-7533.

* SPEAKER'S BUREAU: The Ventura County Supt. of Schools also operates a Speaker's Bureau to link scientists from industry and government with classrooms. And they offer summer internships for teachers to gain experience in science practice. Call Diana Rigby at 388-4409.

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