Sitting around a fire just outside of an open mine shaft in northern Michigan might not seem like a summer vacation. But for Jennifer Richardson, a third-year Earth science teacher at Fallston High School who has spent the past two summers learning about mining, it couldn't be more fitting.
Richardson spent two three-week sessions at Caledonia Mine on the upper peninsula of Michigan as part of the Teachers' Earth Science Institute put on by the National Science Foundation and Michigan Technical University to educate teachers across the country about the importance and operation of the mining industry.
Richardson was one of 24 teachers selected for the program in 2002. Participants receive up to six graduate credits, a stipend and travel expenses.
"I had no idea when I started," said Richardson, "but mining is important, and it's everywhere. My students didn't know we had mining in Maryland, but we do."
Richardson spent most of her training time in Caledonia Mine, which is one of only two active copper mines in the United States. The mine is more than 3,000 feet deep in some places and contains a labyrinth of tunnels.
Richardson, 26, a graduate of Frostburg State University, said the program has helped her teach her ninth-grade Earth science classes.
"I have taught multiple units on the importance of mining," she said. "I try to impart to my kids the necessity of mining. It has such a negative connotation, but we have to have it if we want watches or cell phones."
Richardson said she believes that the negative impact of mining on the environment is overstated.
"It is the most regulated industry in the U.S.," she said. "When you leave, the land is fixed up better than when you came."
Richardson has also brought her findings to other teachers. Earlier this year, she made a presentation to Harford County science teachers on her experiences in the mines.
Her presentation inspired a fellow teacher to apply to the program.
Those enrolled in the program typically spend eight hours a day in the mines, which remain at 40 degrees year round.
Richardson described the tunnels as perpetually damp, pitch black and full of bats.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said. "It gives me the chance to give my students something that no one else can."
According to program director Dr. Francis Otuonye, the program, "provides teachers with the tools to help students develop problem solving abilities through scientific method."
Otuonye said it is important that teachers have hands-on learning while in the mines in disciplines ranging from mining economics to the use of explosives.
"It is the only way they are going to learn," he said.
Otuonye wrote the proposal for the program about five years ago and is pleased with its success.
"We have had teachers from 47 states and very favorable classroom reports from the program," he said.
Otuonye said his goal is to have teachers from all 50 states attend the institute before the grant runs out in 2006.
Richardson and another teacher who was in her group at the mine will be making a presentation to the National Science Teacher Association's convention in Dallas next year in the hopes of getting renewed funding for the mining program.
Richardson is also giving her students the opportunity to experience her passion for education-related travel. She is planning student trips, chaperoning groups in Italy this summer and Australia next.