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Coal Industry Takes Teachers For A Class In Mining


The coal industry is trying to buff up its image in Texas. Texas is known for oil and gas, but it's also a big coal producer. And mining companies are paying for a boot camp for science teachers that has some educators and parents upset.

Laura Isensee, of member station KUHF in Houston, has more.


LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: Teacher Rose Huckaby walks through a grassy field in Jewett, Texas. It used to be a big pit at this coal mine, about two hours north of Houston. She's with 20 other teachers. They're all wearing hard hats, safety goggles and neon vests as they examine the mine with company leaders.

Before coming here, Huckaby had a different idea about coal mines.

ROSE HUCKABY: I guess most of us probably had the picture in mind of the ones like up in Virginia and all, with the strip mining that just goes in and destroys everything. And I've been really amazed to see how everything goes right back to better than it was.

ISENSEE: Huckaby and the other science teachers are learning all about coal mining at this five-day workshop. They call it coal camp. The host is the Texas Westmoreland Coal Co. President Denny Kingsley says he wants to show mining to teachers in particular.

DENNY KINGSLEY: Because they have the opportunity to go and then give this message to all the kids they teach. And what we're after is just a fair message of what it is we do, how we do it, and why it's important.

ISENSEE: The Texas mining industry spends about $100,000 a year to teach teachers. Francye Hutchins runs the camp.

FRANCYE HUTCHINS: Well, it costs the teachers nothing. We pay for their hotel; we provide all their meals; we provide all of the curriculum materials.

ISENSEE: The mining group is certified by the state, so instructors who come can even earn credit to renew their teaching certificates. This type of program isn't just in Texas. Oil and gas groups in other states - like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Oklahoma - have similar free workshops for teachers. Here in Houston, executives with Shell, Halliburton and other companies are even helping launch a new energy high school. Some are all for that business support. Houston school board member Paula Harris, herself a petroleum engineer, says teachers can learn from experts in the real world.

PAULA HARRIS: In a coal mine or on a nuclear plant or on an offshore rig, whenever our teachers have more information to share, it helps the children.

ISENSEE: But another board member, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, says it's one thing if a company has a real science lesson.

RHONDA SKILLERN-JONES: But we want to make sure that we're not crossing the fine line into supporting industry interests in public education.

ISENSEE: Some parents want the energy industry out of the classroom. Ja'Nee Barton has two children in Houston. She sees coal camp as a PR campaign.

JA'NEE BARTON: They're not doing this just to educate their teachers. They're doing this to spread the word that their energy is OK.

ISENSEE: Barton says she trusts her children's teachers to give a fair, unbiased lesson. But experts say it can be hard to remove bias when any group has a stake in a particular issue. Gale Sinatra is an education professor at the University of Southern California. She encourages teachers to go to coal camp, but says they should take their critical thinking skills.

GALE SINATRA: Does the source of the information have an agenda, and does that agenda go beyond the science? If that's the case, then you should be thoughtful of that - and mindful of that.

ISENSEE: At coal camp, teacher Rose Huckaby is taking soil samples back to her sixth-graders, plus this lesson.

HUCKABY: That it's possible for humans to go in and take the resources, and yet restore everything back to better condition.

ISENSEE: She wants her students to keep an open mind and form their own opinions.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.