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Students agree: Geology professor Ian Williams rocks

September 28, 2016

When one’s career involves the pursuit of knowledge and adventure, awards seem secondary. Recognition from students, however, would make any educator feel honored.

The UW-River Falls Distinguished Teacher Award, described on the university’s website as “the most prestigious honor bestowed on campus,” is awarded every year to talented and dedicated educators at UWRF and is chosen by recent graduates and graduating seniors. This year, geology professor Ian Williams was the recipient.

An accomplished educator, Williams said that he knew he wanted to be a geologist at a young age, but never really gave much thought to teaching. Looking back, however, it wasn’t hard to guess that he would become an educator.

“Even as a young kid, like in grade school, every now and then our teacher would give us a project where we had to explain things, and that was like my favorite thing to do,” said Williams. “I always joke that I like the sound of my own voice.”

Having earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in England, Williams moved to the United States in 1975. After earning his Ph.D. at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Williams said that he applied for teaching jobs all across the United States, eventually landing in River Falls in 1982.

“When I came to River Falls I found that this was an establishment that valued teaching, and that’s what I valued,” said Williams. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Although he said that moving from England to California was a shock, Williams said that his first experience with the Midwest climate was the ultimate culture shock. Williams recalled getting his car stuck in the snow on Cascade Avenue and having some students help push him out.

“I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,” said Williams. “The first deep snowfall was horrifying.”

At UWRF, Williams teaches courses such as Introduction to Geology (Geology 101), Structural Geology (Geology 326) and Environmental Geology (Geology 269). He said that what makes teaching worthwhile for him is the idea that he is giving back.

“It’s a sense of passing something on to the next generation,” said Williams. “It’s the idea that my students can have a better life because of something I taught them, they can understand the world better.”

When teaching general education classes and knowing that many of his students may not be interested in geology, Williams said his goal is to make his students better understand and appreciate the world around them.

“Know what the heck you’re looking at and why it’s there,” said Williams. “It doesn’t seem much, but it enhances your life. That enthusiasm for the environment you live in, I think, is important.”

An educator that believes that learning can happen outside the classroom, Williams became involved in Study Abroad: Europe, a program in which students spend a semester doing independent research abroad, as soon as he could.

“I’m obviously European myself, so when I learned about Semester Abroad: Europe, I was obviously very interested in that,” said Williams. “It’s a challenging program, but one that gives a huge amount of benefit to the students that do it.”

Williams said that his experiences with study abroad programs at UWRF have led to many unforgettable memories.

“I can remember every dinner I’ve had with students in some strange place in the middle of nowhere,” said Williams.

When it came to describing how he felt when he heard that he had received the 2016 Distinguished Teacher Award, Williams said that he had the perfect English term.

“I was gobsmacked,” said Williams. “I was surprised, but I think anybody would be surprised. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t appreciate it.”

While Williams was surprised by the recognition, his students weren’t. Brett LaCoy, a senior geology major at UWRF, said he remembers taking trigonometry and feeling completely lost until Williams offered to tutor LaCoy for an hour a week to help him keep his grades up.

“He always make the time to sit and talk with you, whether it involved advising or one of the classes he teaches,” said LaCoy. “Ian is one of my favorite people. He’s been a friend and a mentor since day one.”

Looking back, Williams described his 34 years at UWRF as “Lots of good memories, too many memories.”

One of those memories is when Williams took his students on a field trip to the Appalachian Mountains. While camping out, the group was caught in a rainstorm.

“Virtually the second we finished dinner the heavens opened and they just chucked it down and we split,” said Williams. That’s when a student noticed an electrical wire above their tents that became damaged and had sparks flying out of it. “There are events like this that have happened so many times, ranging from quite frightening to incredibly satisfying.”

While Williams said that he has collected too many memories to count, many of his students feel the same way. LaCoy said he remembers when Williams visited him in Bude, England, where LaCoy was studying abroad. Williams and his wife had rented a car and took LaCoy to sightsee and explore Williams’ home country.

“In reflection, it’s amazing to me that I was able to share these experiences with him,” said LaCoy. “It’s still surreal.”

Having never taught anywhere else, Williams looked back at his time at UWRF with fond memories and a continuing dedication to his students.

“It’s a fabulous place to work,” said Williams. “Obviously, like any road it can be rocky, but for a geologist that isn’t always bad.”