From THE BEACON
Nastacia Voisin, Staff Writer
Amid the clutter of books and papers in Robert Butler’s office, large geological maps catch the eye – just as they are meant to. “Earth science is a powerfully visual science,” Butler said. “If you see it, you can better understand it.”
Butler, more commonly known as Coach Bob, is an earth science professor. As a geophysicist who’s been researching geological hazards for decades, Butler’s spent the past six years developing animations of seismological models that help teachers explain earth science in visual terms.
It’s a scholarly hobby that earned him the Oregon Academy of Science 2013 Outstanding Higher Education Teacher in Science and Mathematics, an annual award recognizing exceptional scientists and researchers dedicated to education.
Butler is honored to have received the award, but remains humble about the recognition. “I think the key is that I don’t feel special about how I teach science classes here at UP or elsewhere,” he said.
Terence Favero, the associate dean for faculty who nominated Butler, feels Butler has a gift for communicating science. “Bob is a teacher of teachers,” Favero said. “He really wants to change the landscape of middle and high school earth science. He’s passionate about it, and students respond to that.”
Butler’s interest in inventing visual teaching tools grew directly from instructing core earth science classes at UP, which he’s done since 2004. “I became interested in teaching science to non-science majors, and that got me intrigued,” Butler said. “How do you communicate earth science to people who aren’t scientists?”
Butler realized three-dimensional aids were the key. He joined forces with Jenda Johnson, who moved from Hawaii to Portland in 2004, and the two started brainstorming ideas. Johnson, a self-taught animator, has a master’s in geology and had previously produced instructional videos. Butler and Johnson have worked closely to develop more than 50 simplified animations of geological processes. They also created “Recent Earthquake Teachable Moments,” which use real-world earthquake examples as instructional aids.
All their animations are accessible internationally by educators through the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology’s (IRIS) website. Butler and Johnson’s animations are very successful, and IRIS reports that Butler’s video lectures have over 100,000 views. Even Teachers Without Borders – an international nonprofit that provides teaching resources – has translated the animations into different languages for their program.
Butler uses the animations in his own classes, too. His creative use of place-based teaching has earned him the best student evaluations out of all professors teaching science courses at UP. Animating is a time-consuming process, with 50 hours of labor easily put into a two-minute video. After finishing an animation, Butler works with other master teachers to create lesson plans and fine-tune the animations. “They’re our crash dummies,” Butler said. “They edit and take things for a test run. Sometimes we get sent back to the drawing board.”
Yet Butler feels the hours of effort are worth the results. “Teachers are hungry for new ways to teach their students,” Butler said. “And it’s a multiplying effect. If you teach a teacher, you teach a whole hoard of students. That’s meaningful.”