For Ethan Baxter, chairman of Boston College’s Earth and Environmental Studies Department, the most fascinating thing about rocks are the stories they tell. Uncovering the history of any specific rock is like a narrative unfolding in front of your eyes.
This mindset, that each rock tells a unique story, influenced Baxter to start his recent project—creating geology videos for kids. On his YouTube channel, he has been filming a series called “Every Rock Has a Story.”
While stuck in quarantine last May, Baxter was not able to deliver his usual geology presentations for local classes from kindergarten to sixth grade. Baxter speaks in these classes about geology and science, hoping to get students excited about science through outreach. Unable to teach classes in person this year, Baxter decided to create a video series to engage younger students’ imaginations and curiosity, and hopefully get them excited about science in the process.
“The last several years I’ve been doing live classroom presentations in kindergarten, fourth grade, [and] sixth grade classrooms, and I love it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. The kids really enjoy it, and the purpose of those classroom visits, and the same thing for the videos, is to just to really get young kids excited and inspired and aware of the science of the earth.”
Talking about his actual production process for these videos, Baxter laughed about his lack of technology and social media skills. His process was quite simple, he said. He used rock samples from his office and home collection, spreading them out on a table. He then opened his laptop and turned on his camera.
Baxter’s first video in the series is titled “Shooting Star.” He introduces his project to all those watching and explains what he hopes they take away from the video.
“The most important thing that I want to tell you guys about in all of my videos is this: every rock tells a story,” he said. “Every rock, every one of these rocks I’ve assembled here has a story inside just waiting to be told … I’ve learned throughout my life how to read those stories and share them with others.”
He then begins his first story detailing the history of the meteorite, which he describes as one of the most special rocks in his series.
“The first rock that I’m going to tell you about is one of the most special and unique rocks that I’ve assembled here,” he said in the video. “This is a story that starts with the night sky. I want you to imagine a time where you are maybe out on a dark, dark night with your parents looking up at the sky … Now and again, have you seen a star that zips across the sky? They call that a shooting star.”
He explains how shooting stars are not actually stars, but giant chunks of rock that zoom through outer space. These meteors sometimes plummet toward the earth, burning up through the earth’s atmosphere. If they survive, they hit the ground and the leftover fragments are meteorites—in essence the rock is a real shooting star.
While these videos are targeted at children from kindergarten to fourth grade, he has gained an audience of all ages. Parents and teachers have also given great feedback about the series and how their children love it, he said. Baxter said he ultimately hopes that viewers gain a new perspective.
“I want everybody in kindergarten, fourth grade, and sixth grade to know that earth science is cool,” he said. “Rocks and minerals are cool, and they tell stories if you look at them the right way … You learn to view things through different perspectives. They open up into so many incredible stories and questions and wonders throughout the earth.”
Beyond making these videos, Baxter conducts research and teaches classes here at BC. He views teaching as a way to share his passion about geoscience with other students, instructing based on his knowledge but also learning from his students at the same time, he said.
“I get really, really excited sharing everything that I’ve learned and just sort of giving folks a different perspective on how they can see the earth, and really see all things in the earth, looking at things through a different lens,” Baxter said. “I think it is what I like best … I can also say that one of the things I like most is when I get to learn from my students … I really love hearing from them, and I learn so much from my students.”
Baxter’s own affinity for rocks stemmed from various influences throughout his life. One inspiration from his childhood was geologist Tony Marciano who lived in his hometown, a suburb outside of Boston. Marciano seemed like an action-adventure hero to Baxter at the time, Baxter said.
“He used to invite me over to his house, and he had his rock collection, and he would show me his rocks,” Baxter said. “He would tell us, show us pictures of … these crazy adventures and collecting rare ores and jungles and canyons. He was very Indiana Jones-y, and so he was just very exciting, this sort of amazing, amazing figure.”
He also credited his budding interest in geoscience to experiences with his father. They would take hikes and walk around the Boston area, trying to explore interesting geological phenomena by using a book Roadside Geology of Massachusetts as a guide. In an almost uncanny coincidence, this book was written by Rev. James Skehan, S.J., the man who founded the Earth and Environmental Studies Department at BC, the same department Baxter would later chair.
To Baxter, earth and environmental sciences is crucially important in modern society. It is a field that has one of the most tangible impacts on people’s lives, whether it’s through climate change, access to clean water, energy and mineral resources, or something else, the relationship between humans and the environment is only growing, he said.
“It’s crucial to our ability as scientists, not just to understand and learn what’s going on, but to be able to communicate what we’ve learned and the implications of what we’ve learned to folks outside of the sciences [and] in all the other parts of society or government, to try to recognize what these things mean in tangible ways and then come up with solutions that are really going to make a difference,” Baxter said.
Baxter’s commitment to sharing his passion with future scientists has been contagious for many students. Annie Haws, BC ’19, is one of them. Haws is a second-year Ph.D. student at Yale who is pursuing a degree in geology and geophysics. She spoke to Baxter’s impact as a teacher and a mentor.
“Enthusiasm is his greatest strength as a teacher, as a researcher as well,” she said. “He’s very enthusiastic about everything he does … For one thing, I think how excited he is about everything he does from his research to all of his outreach activities like [at] local elementary and middle and high schools, that’s inspired me as a researcher, but also as someone who thinks science outreach is really important and wants to make sure that the community is engaged with the sort of things that we do.”
One of Haws’ favorite memories of Baxter involved his pre-class ritual for a course called Earth Materials.
“He would play music at the beginning of every class that would somehow relate back to what he was going to teach about that day, and that was really cool and one of my favorite things about that class,” she said.
In today’s world where pressing issues like climate change require the public’s attention, education about science holds a new weight. From his youth outreach to the classes he teaches and the videos he makes, Baxter said he strives to make science engaging and accessible for students of all ages.
“I want students to get excited but also realize … that if they want to do science, they can do science, it is for everybody,” he said.
Photos Courtesy of Ethan Baxter