Making a Difference

Geologist Thanks Teacher by Inspiring Teachers

“Women don’t do geology – and you’re in a wheelchair.”

Jill Stevens heard that.

Jill Stevens, this year’s AAPG Harrison Schmitt Award winner, heard that during her first day of college orientation.

Good thing she didn’t listen, because eventually she was graduated from that college, Queensland, with First Class Honors (Palynology). She then chose a job with Esso Australia in Sydney, where she’s been for more than 30 years.

A TESEP teacher teaching other teachers about earth sciences – specifically, discussing granites at Mannum, South Australia.
A TESEP teacher teaching other teachers about earth sciences – specifically, discussing granites at Mannum, South Australia.

The AAPG Harrison Schmitt Award is a “special” honor – in fact, it originally was called the “Special Award” because it was presented to recognize outstanding accomplishments that don’t qualify for specific AAPG award categories.

And make no mistake, Jill Stevens is a special geologist – but she’s not receiving this award simply for the quality of her professional work, but rather for her efforts to ensure the quality of future geologists.

Stevens is being honored for her work with Australia’s Teacher Earth Science Education Program (TESEP), an organization she started to help teachers teach geology.

And she did it as a volunteer.

In many ways, then, this award is icing on a cake she never thought she’d taste.

“Receiving the Harrison Schmitt Award for 2012 is a humbling experience,” she said. “It’s been a long journey, and I’m pleased to formally recognize and thank the important people in my life who have helped make this possible.”

And one of those people (we’ll get to him in a moment) is the man who said those hurtful words so many years ago.

To underscore her point about the friends, family members and co-workers who have helped her, Stevens didn’t even want this article written about her. She has an uncanny, sometimes maddening way of deflecting credit.

Ultimately, though, she agreed to the interview, but only if we promised future stories on the organizations and people with whom she works.

So be it.

Teach the Teachers 

In 2006, Stevens, who also is a member of Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, recognized there was a lack of opportunity in school geoscience programs across Australia, so she decided to organize an “Education Forum” at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition held that year in Perth.

There, it was decided (under her leadership) the best way to improve geoscience education was to “teach the teachers,” which became the TESEP objective.

Admittedly, it was tough digging at first. There were funding setbacks and doubt among corporate partners as to the program’s efficacy – but eventually it started taking shape.

“It was great,” she says now, “to see photos of happy teachers on the first workshop and field trip visiting an open cut coal mine in central Queensland.”

Through the years, Stevens has been directly and indirectly responsible for more than 60 one-day workshops – and provided materials to more 1,000 teachers across Australia.

That translates to contributing to the educational needs of more than 300,000 students.

“To cope with the daunting task of taking geoscience secondary school education across Australia – a country almost as large as the USA, with fewer schools scattered over vast distances – a different approach was sought,” she said.

So, through TESEP, she made education aids – including rock and oil sample kits – free to all educators. In fact, through TESEP, teaching resource materials are available to all through its website.

“The TESEP team,” she says, “has bent over backwards to get the job done in developing, then traveling the country to give face-to-face presentations and demonstrations of activities to help teachers excite students.”

In many ways, TESEP was a way for her, personally, to say thank you.

“The journey brings me full circle,” she said, “from being hooked on geology by an inspirational high school geology teacher to having the privilege to chair a fantastic group of dedicated and talented earth and environmental science educators.”

Sowing Seeds of Success

And that journey includes more than just the normal amount of adversity and disappointment.

After all, she accomplished it all without being able to walk, having become a paraplegic after a hiking accident.

That journey, she admits, would not have been possible without her family.

“When adjusting to becoming a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair at 15 years of age, they showed true love and guidance, teaching me to know my boundaries and be independent,” she said.

There were others, too – including her middle school geology teacher, a man by the name of Mr. Protheroe.

“When I became a paraplegic in my middle school years, this wonderful teacher, among others, brought in reading and tutored me during my rehabilitation,” she said.

He also left a tray of rocks and minerals under her hospital bed immediately after the accident.

In talking about what TESEP means to her now, Stevens says she wanted to “ … sow the seeds that can spark a young individual to pursue earth and environmental science, just like me with Mr. Protheroe.”

The goal in Australia, as it is in the United States, is to bridge the gap between industry and education. To that end, beginning in 2013, all Australian states will convert to teaching the same national curriculum rather than state-based curricula with varied emphasis.

Additionally, there will be a higher earth and environmental science content in this new curriculum; and workshops will be offered to give instructors new training.

“Anecdotally, across Australia,” she said, “teachers have reported on the successes of their earth science students, and we are seeing increases in student numbers involved in secondary and tertiary science and, ultimately, working in related industries, such as the petroleum industry.”

The promise that’s out there, she says, is that “… this program for teachers has the potential to be applied in other countries.” 

Pay It Forward

None of that would have happened without her. And, now, as she receives this award (she insisted, yet again, that rightfully belonged to others), she sees a career and life well-lived.

“After 32 years of varied geology, working with skilled and creative geologists and having worked on several assignments in Houston, I haven’t looked back,” she said. “Esso and ExxonMobil have given me a challenging and rewarding career.”

TESEP is how she paid it forward.

“I couldn’t have made this journey without the support of my loving husband, Stephen,” she said, “who has trailed my career through several relocations, and who has been the main home parent in our two children’s early years.”

But what of that other influence, that professor who told her on her first day of college that geology was neither conducive to women or to those confined to wheelchairs?

He became, in her words, “her champion … bumping me up and down railway sleepers to see cuttings, and hauling and pushing me over muddy ditches to outcrops.”

Jill Stevens’ journey was not just a metaphor.

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Emphasis: Annual Convention