The exposed rock face along the Benbow Road that climbs into the Beartooth Mountains southwest of Columbus likely doesn't catch the attention of most passers-by. 

But it made a perfect laboratory for a group of teachers learning how not just to teach geology to their students, but also to teach them to think like a geologist. 

After examining the exposed slab using every sense, even taste, Rocky Mountain College associate professor of geology Emily Ward asked the educators what they saw about the rock — but to not jump to conclusions.

Teachers participate in training in the Custer Gallatin Forest

Teachers Mary Webb, left, and Shawna Wright taste rocks at the teachers training session put on by the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association in the Custer Gallatin National Forest near Dean, Mont. on Friday.

It's a surprisingly tricky tightrope; teachers saw layering in the rock — an observation. But to call it sedimentary, a characteristic often associated with layering, is an interpretation.

It's OK not to find for a right answer immediately. 

"We've got multiple working hypotheses, which is what geologists do," Ward said.

Color might seem like a rock's most obvious trait, but it can also be deceiving; for example, limestone can be tan, but also grey or white, or it can rust into a reddish hue. 

It might bear hallmarks of having been formed from a sandy environment; but that could be a sand dune, river or beach. 

And other nearby rock can help form a more complete picture, narrowing down likely conclusions. 

"You can see all these images in textbooks, but you can't touch them, you can't know that they feel like sandpaper, you can't put them in context with everyone else around them," said Jon Bushey, a West High science teacher helping teach the course. 

By giving teachers hands-on experience, they can better understand that spirit when working with students. The group was largely made up of teachers from southeast Montana who might have the opportunity to give students the same hands-on opportunities in field trips. 

The multi-day training session was organized by the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association, with funding from Sibanye-Stillwater, the Red Lodge Community Foundation, and the Montana Geological Society. 

"Getting teachers into the field is important for them," said Mike Burcin, the research association's grants manager. "It just makes for a much nicer presentation and curriculum for the students."

Place-based education focuses on using backyard examples to reach sweeping educational goals. For example, students from Billings to Red Lodge might recognize the Beartooth Butte — an earlier stop for the educators — along the high-elevation highway and use that to understand geologic principles. 

"We can leverage that knowledge that they already have growing up here," Ward said.

Earth science disciplines like geology are ultimately the study of how humans interact with their surroundings, Bushey said — what resources we have and how we use them. 

"That's some of the most important things our students need to learn ... and a lot of time it's overlooked," he said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.