High in the Wind River Mountain Range, glaciers are shrinking in the jagged peaks. No one knows this better than professor Craig Thompson, who, for 30 years, has studied the range that cuts across the Wind River Reservation.
But research is only half of Thompson's story. He's also the 2015 Wyoming Professor of the Year for his work at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs.
His quiet career as a teacher and scientist has made a difference in the region, from his decades of study on the Wind River glaciers to his influence on the lives of his students.
The award, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, is final affirmation of Thompson’s career. He retired in June from his position as an engineering and earth sciences professor at Western but is continuing his research in the Wind River mountains.
It’s hard to describe how inspiring Thompson is for students, said Mikel Walbridge, a chemical engineer. Walbridge was one of Thompson’s students at Western.
“He just imprints himself on you,” Walbridge said, searching for the right words. “If you’ve ever been around him, he’s just an inspiration. If you talk with him, his eyes light up when you ask him questions. Even after all the years he’s taught, he’s just excited about the unknown.”
Thompson describes his teaching strategy, like his philosophy on life and research, as big-picture thinking.
“So many people in sciences love to concentrate on all those little details, and that is so difficult for a student to grasp if they don’t get the big picture,” Thompson said. “You just end up recognizing that the details, however important they are, are much less important than the big concepts.”
Thompson would begin at the end and work backward, Walbridge said.
“You really don’t understand things well unless you can explain them simply,” Thompson said, paraphrasing Albert Einstein. “By teaching, I was able to crystallize how things work by trying to explain things in the simplest possible terms.”
One of the first things that Thompson did with his novice engineering students was take them out to meet engineers. The students weren’t there to learn math and science. They were there for life lessons, Thompson said.
Mostly, Thompson wanted his students to find joy in their work, whether in engineering, earth science or a totally different career, he said.
Often in conversation with Thompson, his comments on science and education correlate to wider impressions about his life. It’s easy to conjure a classroom scene where young, bewildered college students are struck by Thompson’s certainty and joy.
When a former student heard of Thompson’s award and retirement, he sent an email of congratulations.
“I don’t think you really understand how many lives you have touched,” he wrote. “Thank you for showing me there is a world beyond Sweetwater County.”
Without Thompson, Walbridge said he doesn’t know what he would be doing with his life, he said. He’s sure he wouldn’t have gone on to get his bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Thompson gave Walbridge a chance to prove himself and the encouragement to keep going.
Science translates to life, Thompson said.
Now, Thompson is studying the bugs that live in the Wind Rivers, the smallest visible piece of the complex Alpine ecosystem puzzle. Thompson is partnered with Western and the Swiss Federal Polytechnic University in Zurich, Switzerland.
“What we’re trying to do is get a handle on what is eventually going to happen when the glaciers disappear. One of the things that we see is wider temperature swings. Because the big ice cube in there that gives off heat and takes in heat is no longer there.”
The glaciers are disappearing, but Thompson isn't losing hope. He loves his work, he says, and believes in his students.