Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life

Andreas Baur, Assistant Professor of Chemistry; Judy Byers, Abelina Suarez Professor of English, Director of West Virginia Folklife Center; Galen Hansen, Professor of Physics; Erica Harvey, Professor of Chemistry; Debra Hemler, Associate Professor of Science Education, Coordinator of Science Education; Phillip J. Mason, Professor of Biology, Dean, College of Science & Technology; Noel Tenney, Adjunct Professor of Folklife; and Michelle Bright, Student Preceptor (Science Education Major); Fairmont State University, Fairmont, West Virginia

A 2004 SENCER Model


Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life is Fairmont State University’s first Learning Community. It links a team-taught, integrated science course, Science in the Heart of Appalachia, with a humanities course, Introduction to Folklore. The integrated science course is organized around the following questions, which have both regional and global significance: What is energy and what will be the future demand for it? What are nonrenewable resources? What is the future of coal as an energy source? What alternative sources of energy will emerge to supplement fossil fuels? What responsibilities do I have as an energy consumer? What are the ecological, public health, and social/cultural consequences of extracting and burning coal? The humanities course places a number of these questions in a cultural context and examines the impact of the mining industry on Appalachia history and culture.

The exploration of coal enables students to learn some basic principles of geology such stratigraphy, classification of rocks and minerals, and geologic time. They explore chemistry fundamentals such as bonding, acidity, combustion, and the organization of matter. Physics helps them to better understand energy, energy transformations, heat and thermal emissions, and power plant functioning. Using biology/ecology they investigate photosynthesis, aquatic community structure/responses to acid pollution, carbon cycling/global warming, and respiratory physiology/disease. The science component of this Learning Community meets twice weekly for two hours, permitting group work and discovery-based activities. Students present their research in a poster session at the end of the semester. The folklore course includes three hours of classroom time as well as a laboratory component for experiential learning and fieldbased research in which students collect oral histories and family folklore, and document artifacts of the coal culture of Appalachia.

Learning Goals

Folklore/culture of coal:

  1. Develop a background in the components of folklore and folklife through the historical and philosophical approaches to topics. Measurements: Readings, reflection journal, discussions, examinations.
  2. Identify and analyze traits and attitudes that have formulated the stereotyping of Appalachia, both as region and as a society of people within a region with a special emphasis on the coal history and culture of Central (the Heart) of Appalachia. Measurements: Reflective journal, Socratic questioning, essay exams, field trips.
  3. Identify and analyze the three basic categories of folklore/folklife with a specific emphasis on the culture and folklore of coal including customs, superstitions, festivals, performing arts, oral history, foods, poetry and speech. Measurements: Hands-on direct observations, essay exams, Socratic questioning.
  4. Produce a personal (family) oral history with an emphasis on the cultural influences of coal, direct and indirect. Measurements: Practice techniques of field research/collecting/analysis, including interviewing, recording transcribing, dissemination, motifing.
  5. Produce a folklore collection with an emphasis on coal culture influences. Measurements:
    Practicing indicated field techniques.**

** Note: Student work will be published in Traditions: WV Folklore Journal and archived in the WV Folklore Center at Fairmont State College.


  1. Develop an appreciation of science as productive way of viewing nature and natural phenomena, based upon models derived from common experience.
  2. Gain a broader comprehension of the process of science, especially as it relates to the science of coal and the influence of coal on peoples’ lives.
  3. Develop an appreciation of the unique perspectives that each science discipline has on the science of coal.
  4. Civic Engagement – The value of science to your life, the need to understand fundamental processes and concepts.

Geology of Coal:

  1. Sedimentary Environments in WV – describe the process of formation of sedimentary rock.
  2. Coal Formation – Explain the formation of coal and distinguish between eastern and western types.
  3. Geologic Time – Explain construction of geological time scale, relate stratigraphy to age of rocks, differentiate between coal deposits in the U.S. in terms of age.
  4. Topography – Describe the difference between tectonic mountains and erosional features, investigate the influences of topography on mining methods.
  5. Mining – Distinguish between surface mining, deep mining and mountaintop removal.
  6. Economic Geology – Evaluate mining techniques and economic advantages of each.
  7. Civic Engagement – Recognize coal as a nonrenewable resource and assess implications.

Chemistry of Coal:

  1. Explain the requirements for combustion, recognize structure of common hydrocarbons.
  2. Develop molecular view of matter and explain forces that hold matter together.
  3. Develop and utilize criteria to categorize types of coal, graphite and diamond.
  4. Describe what coal is, how its composition results in desirable and undesirable properties
    (energy source, heavy metal content, sulfur content) and the consequences of contents.
  5. Explain acidity, its causes and effects (acid mine drainage, acid rain).
  6. Perform simple analysis procedure, analyze and interpret data, draw conclusions.
  7. Civic Engagement – Explore implications of acid mine drainage and economic, cultural and environmental trade-offs involved in coal extraction and use.

Physics of Coal:

  1. Describe how kinetic and potential energy are related to concepts of conservation and non-conservation forces and work.
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of how solar energy stored in coal as chemical (electrical) potential energy is converted into mechanical and electrical energy.
  3. Explain thermodynamic concepts of heat, work and entropy and models of engines.
  4. Utilize the concepts of mechanical, electrical and heat energy, work and force in an analysis of the social and cultural significance of coal.
  5. Civic Engagement – New coal technologies, future of coal extraction industry.

Ecology/Biology of Coal:

  1. Explain the limitations of energy use as it relates to the energy flow through natural ecosystems and the implications of coal as a nonrenewable resource.
  2. Describe the impacts of acid mine drainage upon aquatic ecosystems and discuss the remediation options available.
  3. Explain the impact of mountaintop removal and valley-fill upon the health of aquatic ecosystems.
  4. Demonstrate an understanding of the causes of ‘black-lung” disease, the course of the disease for the individual, the incident rates in relationship with different mining techniques and remediation activities.
  5. Describe the public health issues associated with ‘black-lung” disease and the role of the coal industry in seeking solutions.
  6. Civic Engagement – Role of the public in establishment of acceptable risk levels for mountaintop removal and acid mine drainage.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Why is this course a SENCER model?

“I am Appalachia! In my veins Runs fierce mountain pride: the hill-fed streams Of passion; and, stranger, you don’t know me! You’ve analyzed my every move – you still Go away shaking your head. I remain Enigmatic. How can you find rapport with me – You, who never stood in the bowels of hell, Never felt a mountain shake and open its jaws To partake of human sacrifice?

What are the civic questions or problems addressed in this learning community?

Fairmont State University continues to develop and refine its first ever Learning Community (LC), Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life. The LC comprises a new integrated science course, Science in the Heart of Appalachia and the existing humanities course, Introduction to Folklore. National undergraduate science education reform guides our project, and our overarching goal is to help students to learn and value science by making an emotional connection with it.

The integrated science course is organized around the following local/regional/global questions: What is energy and what will future demand mean? What are non-renewable resources? What is the future of coal? What alternative sources of energy will emerge to supplement fossil fuels? What responsibilities do I have as an energy consumer? What are the ecological, public health and social/cultural consequences of extracting and burning coal? These consequences include: mountaintop removal, acid mine drainage, acid deposition, global warming, and black lung disease. The humanities course places a number of these questions in a cultural context and examines the impact of the mining industry on Appalachia culture.

Many of our students are the first generation of their families to attend college, and have a cultural heritage steeped in the economy, history and traditions of coal mining. We want to demystify science by helping students relate to it in the context of the importance of coal to their communities. We want to unfold the story of coal in Appalachia and investigate the intractable social issues that have significant future implications. We want to empower students to consider their responsibilities within a global context.

*This Learning Community Project is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement’s Adaptation and Implementation Program under grant DUE-0310653.

What basic science is covered?

The exploration of coal enables students to learn some basic principles of geology such as stratigraphy, classification of rocks and minerals, and geologic time. They explore chemistry fundamentals such as bonding, acidity, combustion and the organization of matter. Physics helps them to better understand energy, energy transformations, heat and thermal emissions and power plant functioning. Using biology/ecology they investigate photosynthesis, aquatic community structure/responses to acid pollution, carbon cycling/global warming and respiratory physiology/disease.

The course is intentionally structured around student-centered learning with an emphasis on hands-on activities during each class period rather than in a separate weekly laboratory. A constructivist strategy is utilized in all lessons with student exploration being followed by concept development and application. Through this approach we strive to reveal students’ misconceptions, expand their understanding and challenge them to utilize new knowledge in novel circumstances.

STEM/Civic Issues Table

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The Course

Science Syllabus
Folklore Syllabus

Course Design

Course Format


The science course, Coal in the Heart of Appalachia, is an interdisciplinary, integrated general studies course that is team-taught. Each of the two sections offered can have an enrollment of 25 students. We have just begun to utilize the talents of student preceptors during the class and in
curriculum development. The class meets for two two-hour periods per week with active, discovery-based activities that reinforce concepts and methodologies as part of each period. During the semester each of the four faculty members have responsibility for leading specific classes while the other faculty facilitate student learning during group work, as well as actively learn from the lead faculty.

The humanities course, Introduction to Folklore, is the introductory course in the university’s minor in folklore studies. The course meets three hours weekly and also includes a field-based laboratory component. The two faculty members responsible for teaching the course have modified the approach to its content to emphasize the role that the coal industry has played in the nature of Appalachian culture. A significant component of the field research is for the students to acquire a wider understanding of the particular details of the coal industry that have impacted Appalachian life, especially as it relates to the history of the coal fields/coal towns.

Additional Folklore Course Information

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Course Outline


Session Topic Content
1 What is Appalachia? Team Building/Pre-assessment[end tr]

Coal Formation and Extraction (Geology)

2 Rocks of WV Sedimentary Rocks/Stratigraphy
3 How Old is WV Geologic Time
4 Coal Formation Northern/Southern Coals & Fossils
5 “Mountains” in WV Tectonics and Erosion
6 Mining Coal in WV Deep, Surface, and Mountain Top[end tr]
7 Economic Geology Coal Extraction
8 Assessment: Civic Engagement Coal as Nonrenewable Resource

Coal and the Environment


9 Mine Safety Combustion-Explosion[end tr]
10 Methane – an Alkane Exothermic/Endothermic Processes
11 Acid Mine Drainage pH, Acidity, Molecular view
12 What is Coal – Part I Kinds of Matter
13 What is Coal – Part II Elemental Analysis
14 Carbon and Structures Molecular Models and Properties
15 Assessment
Civic Engagement
Impacts of Mining and Burning Coal

Coal as Energy (Physics)

16 Energy in Systems and Bonds Energy
17 Are all Coals the Same? BTUs of Coal Grades
18 Coal as a Fossil Fuel Oil and Gas in WV
19 Energy Transformations Force, Work
20 Coal-fired Power plants Electricity
21 Alternative Energy Sources in WV Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Nuclear
22 Assessment
Civic Engagement
Alternative Energy Sources

Reclamation of Ecosystems (Biology)

23 Living Systems Ecosystems & Energy
24 Plant processes Photosynthesis-making more wood
25 Surface Mining Reclamation Wetlands, woodlands, grasslands
26 Mountain Top Removal/Valley Fill Watershed Issues [end tr]
27 Health Issues – Black Lung, Black Damp Union Success/Failure – Science

Teaching Goals and Philosophy

The faculty participants in this project have a shared sense of the best approach to learning and the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective. We are committed to an education that is well grounded in the liberal arts, and we strive to break down the artificial barrier that often exists between the sciences and the humanities. We foster collaboration among faculty from disparate disciplines.

We strive to establish and maintain an environment where we appropriately challenge students to assume responsibility for their learning. We believe that students learn better by doing (the way of science). We promote collaborative learning that is student-centered, activities-based, interdisciplinary in nature and hopefully, fun.

We have taken a constructivist approach in this learning community in the belief that people learn more effectively through the active creation of their own knowledge base. We want students to learn by a process that requires problem solving, the revelation of misconceptions and a reconstruction of a better informed conceptual foundation. We are attempting to take note of different learning styles through a variety of learning and student assessment modalities.

Class Assignments

Sample Class Assignment: The Great Muffin Mine
Sample Class Assignment: Energy, Structure & Combustion


Field Project: A Study of Personal and Family Folklife (see syllabus)

Response Paper to The Milk-Weed Ladies

Folklore Research Project Rubric

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Sample Science Poster Project

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Evaluating Learning

Assessment and Evaluation Strategies

In the Learning Community, students are being assessed utilizing a variety of methods:

  • Pre and post-course concepts maps to assess changes in comprehension of primary concepts (coal and energy)
  • Collaborative and cooperative in-class activities promoting peer teaching and learning
  • Application type questions and homework to develop/evaluate critical thinking skills
  • Pre and post-course open response, content questions to identify misconceptions and assimilation of content knowledge
  • Content assessments during the semester to evaluate student retention of fundamental facts and concepts as well as critical thinking/problems solving skills. These include individual, group problem solving components and student evaluation of their group members
  • Research poster presentation in the science class on specific social issue related to the coal industry. Students work in pairs to select subject from an approved list, research the issue and create a poster to a specific set of guidelines. Groups present their posters and all the faculty members score each poster according to a rubric (see rubric and list of topics)
  • Two oral presentations in the Folklore course based upon field research collecting projects. Presentations include an interpretation of material culture (artifacts), oral culture (story telling) and customs and traditions.

The science course is being evaluated by:

  • Using the SENCER-Student Attitudes of Learning Gains (SALG) webbased survey. Students complete a pre and post-course survey regarding their attitudes about science, their confidence in their abilities and the value of science. This provides a measure of whether or not the course is having a positive impact on students’ perspectives. We are part of the SENCER SALG assessment project.
  • Using the Individual Development and Educational Assessment (IDEA) Student Ratings of Instruction course evaluation instrument developed by Kansas State University (see attached form). This instrument provides an exceptional analysis of the course with regard to faculty selected and prioritized learning outcomes, students’ attitudes about the course and faculty performance. Additionally it permits comparisons to other courses of similar nature taught at other colleges and universities.

Exams and quizzes:

Sample Group Test: Geology

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Sample Individual Test: Coal & Geology

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Background and Context


Phillip J. Mason
Professor of Biology
Dean, College of Science & Technology
(304) 367-4156

Judy Byers
Abelina Suarez Professor of English
Director of West Virginia Folklife Center
(304) 367-4286

Debra Hemler
Associate Professor of Science Education
Coordinator of Science Education
(304) 367-4393

Where is the Learning Community taught?

Fairmont State University (FSU) is a public, comprehensive, multi-site, selective university located in Fairmont, West Virginia, approximately 100 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, PA. We are undergoing an academic reorganization, and presently have two colleges and four schools: the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Science & Technology, the Schools of Business, Fine Arts, Nursing and Allied Health Administration, and Education, Health and Human Performance. We have over 70 undergraduate majors and three Master’s programs and enroll approximately 4500 students. FSU has a long tradition of excellence in teacher education, and from that base has built quality programs in the sciences, social sciences (especially criminal justice), mathematics, business administration and nursing. (

Fairmont State’s broad goal is to educate students as productive persons with the fundamental skills in problem solving, effective communication and cooperative and independent work necessary to solve real life issues and to remain contributing members of society.

Desired Profile of a Fairmont State University graduate:

  • Students should acquire an informed appreciation of the arts, the humanities and the social and natural sciences; they should become aware of the relationships of the academic disciplines among themselves and with broader social and ethical issues.
  • Students should develop competence in mathematics, oral and written communication, reading and listening.
  • Students should acquire problem-solving skills to aid them in making decisions about personal values and career strategies. They should demonstrate proficiency in their major fields of study so as to be competitive in the job market or gain admission to respected graduate or professional schools.
  • Students should have techniques for coping with the vast amounts of information available in a rapidly changing society; they should accept the necessity and pleasure of lifelong learning.
  • Students should develop sensitivity in matters of social justice, accepting and appreciating ethnic or personal differences among individuals in our society. Students should maintain an ethical view that respects the life, property, opinions, and feelings of others.
  • Students should have the knowledge and attitudes that lead to physical health and well-being.

Institutional/External Support

Fairmont State University continues to support this Learning Community through faculty workload distribution whereby the full-time faculty teaching a portion of each section receive full-load credit. All of the science faculty members have fully supported this initiative, enabling us to acquire needed supplies and materials from a limited budget.

We have been fortunate to gain the support of the National Science Foundation for this project. We were awarded a three-year DUE CCLI Adaptation and Implementation grant for $193,000. These monies pay for faculty stipends during the summers, development workshops, a project evaluator, travel to present our work, student preceptors, and publications.

What is the Learning Community’s role in the undergraduate curriculum?

As part of its new Liberal Studies Curriculum (General Education), Fairmont State University requires each student to complete 8 credits in the sciences (two 4-credit courses, laboratory or activities-based). Additionally, as part of the requirements of the Artistic/Creative Expression/Interdisciplinary Option, a student may select from a number of interdisciplinary courses. The Learning Community, Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life is composed of the two courses, Science in the Heart of Appalachiaand Introduction to Folklore, and fulfills four credits of the science requirement and four credits of the interdisciplinary option.

How does the Learning Community advance institution-wide initiatives?

The Learning Community is intentionally developed to help students acquire a number of characteristics valued in our graduates, including:

  • enhanced communication skills,
  • an appreciation of the interconnectedness among the sciences,
  • improved problem-solving skills,
  • increased civic awareness and responsibility,
  • an appreciation of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

Additionally, this Learning Community will begin to impact the very important institutional initiative of improving student retention. The confidence and independence that a community of learners can foster should help students develop stronger attachments to the institution.

The Learning Community will also serve as a model for the development of future learning communities. The university is in the planning stages of the creation of learning communities for at-risk students who require one or more academic skills courses. Also, the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Science & Technology are discussing ways to link new Liberal Studies science courses with fundamental skills courses in English composition as a direct result of this project.

Resulting Projects and Research


Hemler, D., & Byers, J. (2004, August). Learning communities: Coal science and folk studies. New Horizons in Teaching and Learning, Fairmont State University, Fairmont, WV.

Hemler, D., Byers, J., Baur, A., Hansen, G., Mason, P., & Tenney, N. (2003). Coal in the Heart of Appalachia: An integrated science and folklore learning community. Poster presented at the Wofford College Learning Community Open House, November 21, 2003, Spartanburg, SC.

Hansen, G. (2004). Physics within a SENCER-modeled general science course – our first attempt. Invited talk at the National Association of American Physics Teachers meeting, January 4, 2004, Miami Beach, FL.

Future Plans

We have spent this summer making planned revisions to the learning community that reflect significant progress toward our original goal to provide a fully integrated science course and a weekly linked seminar that will better facilitate students’ appreciation of the interconnectedness of science and the humanities.

The revised course outline with student outcomes, an abbreviated schedule for the linked seminar, and new rubrics for the poster presentations and seminar work are provided.

Related Resources


Implications of Learning Research

Reinventing Myself as a Professor


March 2004

“Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life” pp. 3-4

“First Results from SENCER SALG” p. 9

May 2004

“SSI 2004 Participants” p. 2

December 2004

“Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life” p. 3

April 2005

“Announcing the SSI 2005 Participants” p. 4
“Capacious Work, Briefly Stated” pp. 5-6
“Learning Chemistry Through Policy Issues and Civic Engagement: A Report from the American Chemical Society Meeting in San Diego” pp. 7-8

Outside resources:


Ressler, M. M. (1977). Appalachia. Charleston, WV: The Appalachian Center of Morris Harvey College.

Lockard, D. (1998). Coal: A memoir and critique. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia.

Mountain State Coal (CD-ROM), WV Geological and Economic Survey, 2003

Folklore textbooks:

The American Folklife Center. A guide to folklife and fieldwork. Washington, DC: The Library of Congress.

Armstead, R., & Gardener, D. L. (2002). Black days, black dust: The memories of an African-American coal miner. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Bonasso, R. (2003). Fire in the hole. (n.l.)

Byers, J., Randolph, J., & Tenney, N. W. (1999). In the Mountain State: A West Virginia folklore and cultural studies curriculum. Charleston, WV: West Virginia Humanities Council.

Maurer, B. B. (1975). Mountain Heritage (7th Ed.). Parsons, WV: McClain Printing.

McNeill, L. (1988). The Milk-Weed Ladies. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Science textbooks:

Lockard, D. (1988). Coal: A memoir and critique. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia.

Mountain State Coal (CD-ROM), WV Geological and Economic Survey, 2003