BILLINGS — Denece Lord looked up at the cliff walls that ring Pictograph Cave State Park southeast of Billings.
"Geology tells a story," she said. "But you've got to know how to read that story."
Lord, armed with the clues to interpret the tales hidden in the landscape and a natural ability to help her students tease them out, was named Earth Science Teacher of the Year by the Montana Geological Society.
She was at Pictograph Cave State Park earlier this week with her freshmen earth science classes from West High. Guiding them through the park Thursday morning, she constantly challenged them to use their eyes and interpret the signs they saw in the rock, the vegetation and the landscape.
"Let's just make some observations," she told them. "What do you guys see?"
Her class described the colors of the cliff walls and the features around them, noting the pockmarks in the rock and the stone and boulders lying on the ground in front.
Lord explained that the area was an "interstate highway" for migratory animals and the perfect spot for various tribes to stop for a few weeks and rest. Everything they needed was there — water, food, fuel and shelter.
"This is really kind of a special place," she told them.
Her enthusiasm for the subject matter — Lord is a trained geologist — is noticed by her students.
"She's a pretty cool teacher," said Jayson Leinwand. "She's pretty hands-on, lots of adventure."
As an earth science teacher, being hands-on is a top priority for Lord. Two years ago, former history teacher Dewey Hansen left $2.7 million to the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools with the instructions that it be used for science and math instruction.
Lord has used the portion of the funds reserved for her program on field trips.
"I'd rather the kids had the experience of getting out," she said. "I'd take a field trip every day if I could."
Field trips allow her students to participate in what she calls "place-based" learning. They're out in the environment, able to observe the natural world and place in their hands the stuff of earth science.
"It's super-important," she said.
It's one of the reasons she's grateful for the award: She sees it as validating her approach to the subject matter.
"How I think these kids need to learn things is important," she said.
Lord was caught off-guard when it was announced she had been named for the award. She had no idea it was coming.
It was especially meaningful because it was awarded by a group she considers her peers.
"It was really overwhelming," she said.
She may have been surprised, but her students weren't.
"She knows what she's doing," said freshman Josh Waller.
"She really goes into detail about things," Leinwand said.
Lord said she's already done her celebrating over the award. Her next challenge is to help the next generation of science teachers catch the vision of place-based learning and help them inspire a whole new crop of students.
"It's exciting," she said. "It's very exciting."