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Geography teacher training academy tours mining towns


Instructor points out a retention pond On their tour of the Powell River Project, instructor Stewart Scales points out a retention pond — a control measure designed to allow disturbed sediment from surface mines to settle out of runoff before the water returns to a stream. Photo by Steven Chamberlin

May 15, 2017 – When geography instructor Stewart Scales agreed to lead an excursion for 20 high school teachers attending the Virginia Geographic Alliance’s teacher training academy, he used the opportunity to share not only the importance of geography education but the unique culture of his home.

Scales led the group on a field trip to two mining communities in far Southwest Virginia — Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, Scales’ hometown. Throughout the weekend, teachers explored the physical geography of both towns, delved into the social and economic implications of declining mining towns, and heard presentations from guest speakers.

Although the towns are only 2 1/2 miles apart, they are separated by a mountain range. Appalachia, on the west side, is situated in the middle of the coalfields, while Big Stone Gap, on the east side and separate from the mines, housed the company headquarters. “You have physical separation between the blue-collar folks and the administration,” Scales explained. “After many of the mines closed, Big Stone Gap was able to diversify its economic base, while Appalachia wasn’t.”

The teachers also toured the Powell River Project, a partnership between Virginia Tech and several agencies and organizations that serves as a research station to test various agricultural and land-use practices to reclaim abandoned strip mines.

The trip was eye opening for the teachers, many of whom had never visited the region. “A lot of them had heard the worst stories you can imagine about mining sites being empty wastelands,” Scales said. “It surprised them to see what you can do if a mine is reclaimed correctly. If you treat it right, you can get biological production out of it again.”

The Virginia Geographic Alliance frequently partners with Virginia Tech to arrange field trips for teachers to see and experience concepts relating to geography education firsthand. “Geography is in everything,” Scales said. “It’s the tool that spans every discipline. The alliance offers qualitative immersion for these teachers and makes it a little easier for them to be able to teach geography.”

For Scales, the field trip was more personal than simply sharing geographic knowledge. “My dad was a geologist for the State of Virginia, and he did this very field trip for teachers when I was a child. To continue the work my dad started in educating people about Southwest Virginia was really fulfilling,” Scales said.

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