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Making Earth Science Interesting

In essence, what you're doing is competing with that great medium television," says Roger Morton. "If you don't do the job they'll switch you off."

Morton knows what he's talking about. One of this year's Rutherford Awardwinners for undergraduate teaching, the professor of geology has figured out how to make earth science interesting even for those who don't know a thing about it.

Since he came to the U of A in 1966, Morton has introduced countless students to economic geology. His introductory courses for both specialists and general undergraduates are highly regarded by those lucky enough to attend them.

And Morton appreciates their enthusiasm. "It almost brings you to tears each year when you hear how grateful people are to go into a course that they've enjoyed," says Morton, who explains that he not only tries to take care of the first-year people. "I'm also almost recruiting people into geology."

Becoming a teacher wasn't something Morton planned. Everything, he says, just fell into place. He grew up in northern England, doing his PhD at the University of Nottingham. When confronted with having to find a job, he hopped a boat to Norway and became a research fellow at the University of Oslo. Fate decreed his return to Nottingham—this time to teach —but he was not to stay there long. When he was passed over for a promotion because of his humble social background, he decided it was time to go, and Alberta was the place. As a resuit of the move, his salary jumped from $2000 to $11,000, which seemed like a fortune back then.

But money has little to do with the rewards of teaching, stresses Morton. "One is paid not just in money but in the joy of seeing your students succeed — not just to your level, but beyond your level."

The way to stimulate his students' desire to learn and foster their success is something Morton didn't just figure out overnight. "Like red wine you get better with age," he muses. And using the best in modern media doesn't hurt when it comes to keeping 400 students interested and awake at eight o'clock in the morning. "If you go in there and stand behind a lectern and become ecclesiastical, people are going to go to sleep on you," he laughs.

A sense of humor is a great asset in the classroom, and Morton brought to his teaching some previous experience at making people laugh. In 1952 a pandemic of influenza struck western Europe, and to raise the spirits of some local children, he helped put on a Laurel and Hardy vaudeville show. This isn't far removed from what good teachers do in class, says Morton, who adds that you have to "be at the level of your audience, to remember what it was like when you were an undergrad yourself."

Having thrown himself into some thoroughly dangerous projects over the years, Morton is known as the Indiana Jones of his department. "Adventure drives me more than anything," he says of his geological quests in places from China to Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Peru, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Golden Star Resources Ltd., a corporation he cofounded with U of A grad and former Edmonton Eskimo football player Dave Fennell, '79 LLB, now takes Morton to Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana, and Venezuela. But exploring for gold and diamonds is not just leisurely diversion for Morton, who is also a gemmologist and silversmith. What he modestly calls "extra-university activities" makes him an even better teacher. Morton strongly believes that students need real world knowledge, not just vague theories about the earth and its industries. Part of his challenge as an instructor is to bring his outside experiences to life for his students.

Though the pursuit of diamonds and gold has its own appeal, Morton gets his greatest thrill from seeing his students get excited about geology. As for golden laurels — namely the Rutherford Award —"that sort of thing is merely an added shine onto the compliments that you get on a yearly basis," says Morton.

Published Autumn 1994.

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