Hayden The mouth of a 90-foot pit, as deep as a nine-story building, gaped beneath the feet of Lane Middleton's Hayden Valley Elementary sixth-grade science class.
A crane with a bucket the size of the children's classroom, known as a drag line, pulled at the earth to reveal a solid vein of shining black coal. All around, walls of turned-up dirt formed an otherworldly landscape.
Middleton's class spent a day last week at Seneca Coal Co.'s Yoast Mine as the first part of their "Big Things" unit.
The unit is organized around the question: How do machines help me build big things?
"The idea is to use the students' own community as a context for learning," Middleton said, so going to one of the area's mines was a natural fit.
The field trip to the mine was designed to let kids see everything from a crane to a backhoe up close. Many of the students had relatives who work in the mines, but for all of them, this was the first time they had seen the mine up close.
The entire day was an adventure.
Before they had even seen the drag line, the welding shop or the dynamite shed, the students skipped off the bus singing, "We get to wear a hard hat. We get to wear a hard hat."
Middleton gathered the children together before they were introduced to their tour guides, Dennis Bugay and Bill Kleckler.
"The most important skill you will use today, as scientists, is observation," Middleton said.
Their first stop was the mechanic's shop, where they saw dismantled heavy equipment. Bugay showed them the exposed inside of a bulldozer.
"It takes a lot of little machines to make a big one," he said.
The next stop was a visit to a waiting crane.
Sixth-grader Braylin Werten stood with his clipboard and hardhat, learning directional signals from Bugay. With the movement of his fist, Werten got the crane to pick up and move a large wooden spool.
As Bugay and Kleckler drove them down dirt roads and into the latest mining pit, they learned that all the coal from the Yoast Mine, about 150,000 tons a month, is sold to the Hayden Station power plant to be burned.
"We are trying to get it to them as fast as possible," Kleckler said, "but that plant is going all the time."
The vans drove past the drag line bucket and down the steep winding slope to the bottom of the pit. A vein of coal, 12 feet thick, was being drilled.
Kleckler explained because the coal was solid, explosives are needed to break it up before it can be transported, by truck, to the power plant.
Students pressed their noses against the van window to see the bright fuses coming out of the coal.
It was their last stop before loading onto the bus that brought them back to school for lunch.
Back in the classroom, students were asked to identify as many machines as they knew about and explain the function of those machines.
Their responses varied from, "Machines are faster than working by hand" to "Machines make you lazy and fat."
Middleton hopes to bring the students back to the mine in the spring to show them the reclamation work done by the company after all the coal has been extracted. Yoast Mine workers refill the pits when they are finished and plant grassland for grazing wildlife.
"I want students to see all sides of environmental issues," Middleton said. "I didn't get that when I was a kid."