— June 8, 2023
Education and outreach are central to the mission of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources (NMBGMR). While part of this work supports mineral, energy, and water resources management, the Bureau also has many programs and facilities that educate and engage the general public. “We’re always trying to integrate outreach in our work, trying to make our work more accessible,” says Cynthia Connolly, manager of the Bureau’s K–12 education outreach programming.
Connolly and her team often lead tours of the Bureau’s mineral museum and labs for school groups, or travel to schools to participate in events. “We recently worked with New Mexico Tech to provide activities for two middle school expos. Tech set up a drone lab and a combat robot demo, and we gave the students a tour of our world-class mineral museum and had them look for treasures using our scavenger hunt. We reached about 200 students,” she says. “We also participate in events throughout the state, and we try to visit the ones that will offer the most exposure. Earlier this year we participated in an event at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, and we reached about 1,400 people.” The team also traveled to Santa Fe to take part in Earth Science Day at the Roundhouse during this year’s legislative session.
While the Bureau’s outreach happens throughout New Mexico, many programs take place here in Socorro, like Tech Trek, a week-long summer camp for eighth-grade girls who are passionate about STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. “Campers stay at Tech and take part in STEM activities that cover many science disciplines. They listen to female guest speakers and receive mentoring from women in science. We take them on a field trip led by female geologists and give them tours of our mineral museum or labs where Tech Trek students can see women at work doing science,” says Connolly. “It’s an excellent program because students get opportunities to experience different aspects of STEM, and we’re able to provide part of that.”
Connolly also organizes Rockin’ Around New Mexico, an intensive, three-day workshop for K–12 teachers in New Mexico where they receive hands-on training and take field trips to explore geology. Lite Geology is another resource for New Mexico earth science teachers. The free biannual publication contains a wealth of classroom resources, including exercises that can be accessed on the Bureau’s website, along with cartoons, puzzles, and other features designed to make learning fun.
“One of my biggest goals for the future is improving access to our geology programs,” Connolly says. She and her team are about to launch a “geo trailer,” a mobile classroom that will take mineral specimens and other science-based exhibits directly to students throughout the state, especially to more remote areas.
Expanding access to Bureau resources is also a goal for John Rakovan, mineralogist and senior mineral museum curator. “I’m really interested in increasing our web content, not just with images of our mineral specimens, but content that uses those images for teaching,” he says. “If we can’t bring teachers and students into the museum for whatever reason—they’re too far away or they don’t have time—we want to give them tools for teaching.”
“Museums are certainly important tools for education. But I think the most significant role for a mineral museum like this, in terms of outreach, is not just to educate people but to inspire them, and to inspire an interest in science,” Rakovan says. “People come in and see the specimens and are wowed by the beautiful nature of things, the interesting shapes, the vivid colors. That visceral response to natural objects really inspires people to ask questions about nature. And once people are inspired to learn, that’s where the educational part comes in.”
As a lifelong mineral collector, Rakovan knows this feeling of inspiration. “Even experienced minerologists will still awe at the perfection of crystal shapes and forms—like pyrite cubes from Spain that can form absolutely perfect cubes. And people will say, ‘Oh, it must have been cut like that.’ But that’s the way it came out of the ground. It’s just chemistry!”
Like Connolly, Rakovan also takes the show on the road, so to speak. “That’s part of our outreach mission, to go to different venues like gem and mineral shows, some of which draw tens of thousands of visitors. We’ll also visit groups like mineral clubs or give talks at symposiums.”
But plenty of people do come visit the mineral museum—over 15,000 every year. “We’re a very obvious face to the Bureau,” says Rakovan, “The museum is a very big part of what the public sees and might engage with. We’re a gateway to interacting with the community here in Socorro and with the rest of the state.”
With around 20,000 mineral specimens in the collection and 4,000 on display, along with mining artifacts, meteorites, gemstones, and lapidary materials, there’s something for everyone to discover. “We have different scavenger hunts that are age-specific for school groups that visit, and that get kids looking at shapes and colors and learning about minerals,” says Kelsey McNamara, museum curator and X-ray diffraction lab manager.
“We’d like to really expand our educational programming, especially for different age groups,” adds Rakovan.
The Bureau’s bookstore is the other face of outreach and another tool for helping the public access resources. Located across the atrium from the mineral museum, the bookstore offers a wide selection of Bureau publications, along with maps, mineral specimens, gifts, and rockhounding supplies.
“We’re definitely one of the public-facing sides of the Bureau. We interact with the public a lot,” says Brenda Whitt, bookstore publication sales office manager. “My favorite part of the job is being involved with the public, and having people who are interested in geology and earth science come in. Or sometimes people will come here and say, ‘We didn’t even know there was a bookstore and museum here!’”
“But we do have some people who come every day—the regulars,” says Roberto Villagomez. He joined the bookstore in March as a publication resource specialist. “With me being new here, I never realized how popular rockhounding and geology were until I finally got a look for myself,” he says.
When asked what types of items are most popular, Villagomez emphasizes, “A lot of people like maps, particularly our geologic maps.”
“Our highway maps are popular too,” adds Whitt, “along with our puzzles, our Valles Caldera geologic map mug, and our geology guides to parks and public lands, like the Rio Chama and Rio Grande guides.”
“Those guides are big sellers with people who are going on river trips, especially this time of year,” says Villagomez.
Even though the bookstore sees around 200 customers every week, Whitt and Villagomez manage to reach many more people when they visit different events across the state, especially gem and mineral shows, which are always big sales drivers. The bookstore also sells products via its wholesalers throughout the Southwest. “They’ll stock some of our maps and books, so if you’re ever in, say, the REI in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, you can find some of our products,” says Whitt.
The bookstore and mineral museum are located on the first floor of the NMBGMR building at 801 Leroy Place in Socorro, and are open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm and weekends from 10 am to 3 pm. To learn more about the Bureau’s education and outreach programs, visit https://geoinfo.nmt.edu/education/home.html.