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Experience One


The decision to come from New York to Dillon, Mont. was an easy decision for Montana Western environmental sciences Professor Rob Thomas. One factor trumped all others: location.

Thomas says there is no other place he would rather be teaching geology and environmental science. A stone’s throw from Yellowstone National Park, Montana Western is surrounded on three sides by the Continental Divide with lofty mountain ranges, pristine rivers and seemingly endless valleys in all directions.

During his time at Montana Western, Thomas helped transform the university into a center of experiential learning using the Experience One system.

“I don’t think experiences for undergraduates doing the type of research we do for a class like this exist,” Thomas explains. “There just isn’t time. The memorize-regurgitate method is not inspiring. Education is about motivating and this is a new way of motivating by doing.”

Thomas was recently acknowledged for his efforts in UMW's transition to Experience One with the 2009 Baccalaureate Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year. Thomas is the first and only Montana professor to win this prestigious award.

More often than not, students in Thomas’ class will find themselves out in the field gathering data and observing in real life what many undergraduates only read about in books. As Thomas often says, “Southwestern Montana is our lab.”

Thomas’ recent research projects have included the geologic history of the northern margin of the Yellowstone hot spot and the assessment of fluvial Arctic grayling habitat restoration on the upper Big Hole River. He also continues to study Cambrian mass extinctions and other sedimentological problems throughout the western United States. Thomas is currently working on a book of Yellowstone-area geology with City University of New York Staten Island President Bill Fritz and a book on Montana geology with UMW colleague Sheila Roberts. In 2009, Thomas was named the Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. In 2010 he was named the Montana Regents Professor.

Because the block system truly challenges students, Thomas says it also rewards them with both the knowledge and inspiration needed to thrive in post-graduate studies and professional work.

“There’s no falling through the cracks here, and it’s not coddling,” Thomas asserts. “The block takes the highest level of commitment and passion and enthusiasm.”