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June 10, 2002

Connections that rock

By Eric Rangus

Steve Henderson’s field trips would make a travel agent green with envy. Over the past two years, Henderson has escorted students to the Rocky Mountains, Big Bend National Park in Texas, the Scottish highlands and the Bahamas. All in the name of … geology.

Making connections is what Henderson, associate professor of geology at Oxford College, calls his work. While the study of geology is central to all of Henderson’s journeys, geology’s relationship to the world around it is perhaps even more important.

“I can show students the connections between geology and everything,” Henderson said. “In Texas, we do a lot of connections between geology and ecology and, to a certain extent, culture. With the dinosaurs in Colorado and Utah, it’s geology and paleontology. I think that’s intriguing. So many students wouldn’t think of these connections.

Students will come here and take an English course or a chemistry course, and put them in these little compartments. I want them to change their way of thinking and not put classes in compartments, but to integrate them. That’s so much fun. It’s a higher level of intellectual thinking.”

Soft-spoken and laid back, Henderson’s passion for his work and for teaching is still easily apparent. In all of his classes, he stresses the importance of hands-on activity. Sure, he lectures like every other professor, but he also is point man for several hikes in which he leads students across all manner of terrain.

For 10 days in May, Henderson, Anthony Martin, senior lecturer in environmental studies, and nine students ventured about Colorado and Utah, visiting museums, hiking in national parks and checking out a variety of fossil sites.

The highlights of the class, “Dinosaurs in Their World,” Henderson said, were trips to see fossilized dinosaur tracks, which make the creatures more real for the students, and sites where dinosaur bones were still embedded in rock.

“You can take students to a museum and show them a mounted dinosaur skeleton,” Henderson said. “That’s all well and good. But the students don’t appreciate the fact that the bones came out of the earth. Once they see the rocks with bones in them, it’s different.”

Henderson’s Texas course, which he has taught every other year since 1987, grew out of a class entitled Desert Biology. The first couple times he led it, he called it Desert Geology and Biology, but Henderson eventually dropped the latter designation since it wasn’t his specialty. But that doesn’t mean he narrowed the curriculum.

“What I try to do with the course,” Henderson said, speaking specifically about Texas, but the thought can be applied to all his classes, “is to put a little variety in it every time.”

So he may take students down different trails or perhaps show them to different sets of dinosaur tracks. One time, he took his desert geology class not to Big Bend but to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The course will be taught once again next year.

Henderson’s travels aren’t limited to the United States. He traveled to Scotland last summer with anthropology assistant professor Mark Auslander. Their course, Geology and Culture of Scotland, explored how the land affected life in Scotland. Fifteen Oxford students spent two weeks there and the class was a great success.

Next year Henderson plans to change up the course a bit. Joining him will be Oxford Assistant Professor of English Christine Loflin. They will lead the course on geology and English literature.

“The thought is that we would read some of the works in advance,” he said. “Works that are related to the place. The story is set in Scotland, and the Scottish place has a distinctive role in the story.”

In the Bahamas, students in Martin’s and Henderson’s Modern and Ancient Tropical Environments (the course is listed under environmental studies—Martin is the lead professor) spent time not only comparing the island chain’s rocks from different time periods, but also snorkeling and a lot of hiking. Previous classes were responsible for hacking trails through the Bahamian jungle, and those trails are used frequently today.

Henderson’s current paper sprung from his Bahamian work. He and Martin, a frequent collaborator, are collaborating on a piece investigating how hurricanes have transported shells throughout the island, sometimes depositing them hundreds of meters from their starting points.

Henderson remembers the exact moment he became interested in geology. In third grade, he was on the playground at school and he found a rock with two seashells embedded in it.

He showed it to his teacher and asked her what it was. She said it was a fossil.

Anyone who has been around third graders for any length of time can predict young Steve’s next question.

“What does that mean?”

“Go read about it,” was the reply.

“So I found every book I could on fossils,” Henderson said, recalling the incident. “Not necessarily on dinosaurs. They were neat, but I liked the little things, too. From the time I was in third grade, that’s what I wanted to do. I was amazed such things existed.”

A native of New Jersey, Henderson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology at Indiana University and worked for three years as a petroleum geologist in Oklahoma. When he began pursuing a Ph.D. in the subject at the University of Georgia, he got hooked on teaching. Henderson got his doctorate in 1984, joined Oxford’s faculty in 1985 and has been there ever since.

Henderson’s latest research mixes geology with yet another social science—history. Specifically, Henderson is studying geology and the Civil War. In Georgia, for instance, geology played a major role in the Confederacy’s defensive plans as the Union army marched south from Tennessee.

The troops of Gen. Joseph Johnston occupied the high ground (which was made up of harder rocks), while Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops had to march through the more dangerous valleys.

“What we found is that Sherman and Johnston had to follow this regional geology,” Henderson said. “If you look at one battle after another, starting in Chattanooga, you find that the Confederates occupied the high ground and the Union army went around them.”

Henderson also has lectured on the battles of Chickamauga and Vicksburg. In the case of the latter battle, he has taken students to the battle site on a side trip during the trek to Big Bend for his desert geology course.

Since he’s not going to Scotland this summer, Henderson’s next few months will be pretty calm. He plans to work on his Bahamian paper and do some other catching up, but he will be far less harried than he is during the academic year.

One of his main activities, in fact, will be shuttling his 12-year-old daughter Sarah back and forth from gymnastics (Henderson’s wife Kathryn, also a geologist, teaches middle school in Newton County).

“That keeps me busy,” Henderson said of his chauffeur duties.