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


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.

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