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Bringing earth science to life

West Hempstead professor honored for years of excellence

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From collecting different types of rocks and animals to gazing at the stars through a telescope, West Hempstead resident Dr. Bret Bennington has long been intrigued by the wonders of science. Now the chair of the department of geology, environment and sustainability at Hofstra University, Bennington was recently recognized for his passion for earth science.

Bennington received the 2019 Neil Miner Award from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers for stimulating interest in earth science. He was honored during an awards ceremony at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Phoenix last month.

“I was completely floored. I had no idea,” said Bennington, 54. “My first thought was, there’s been a terrible mistake. I’m incredibly humbled and grateful for the recognition. It makes me feel like I have to do twice as much now.”

Fellow Hofstra professor Dr. Christa Farmer nominated Bennington, and praised him as an inspiring leader and supportive colleague. “He just manages to bring earth science alive for everyone,” said Farmer, who has worked with Bennington for 15 years. “He’s incredibly generous with his time and ideas, and I hope that he stays as our department head for a very long time.”

Bennington is known for finding creative ways to make learning im-pactful for his students. He has dressed up as famed biologist and geologist Charles Darwin to channel how Darwin formulated the theory of natural selection; led a group of students across the American West to follow the total eclipse in 2017; and traveled with another group to Greece to study volcanic activity on the islands of Santorini and Nisyros. Earlier this year, he co-directed a two-day Hofstra symposium, “One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 @ 50,” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Bennington credits his “never-say-no” attitude to his creative learning techniques.

“I just never pass up an opportunity to try something new and different with my students,” he said. “Teaching at Hofstra is great because I have friends who are biologists, chemists and astronomers, and I think that’s the secret to success, to surround yourself with people who are always forcing you to kind of step up your game.”

One of those friends is Hofstra biology professor Dr. Russell Burke. Both believe in getting students out in the field to different parts of the country and the world to explore the sciences. One of their annual trips is a three-week expedition in the Galápagos Islands to study the environment and wildlife. Burke, who has known Bennington for 20 years, said he appreciates his diverse skills.

“He’s got a really wide skill set, so it’s hard to predict what he’s teaching next,” Burke said of Bennington. “His knowledge is encyclopedic, he’s incredibly resilient, and he’s always looking for something new.”

Bennington is also instrumental in Hofstra’s Summer Science Research Program, which has partnered with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery for the last two summers. Funded by a $240,000 grant, local high school students in Malverne, West Hempstead, East Rockaway, Lynbrook, Oceanside and Rockville Centre work with Hofstra mentors to develop environmental research projects related to Long Island’s Mill River watershed, which runs from Hempstead Lake south to Hewlett Bay, just south of Bay Park.

“This year we had about 40 students participating in this program, which is the most we’ve ever had,” Bennington said. “They’re really bright, and they give our undergrads a run for their money. This program is really about involving them in earth science research and to let them know that they are great careers in the geosciences.”

Bennington also serves as principal investigator on the STEM + Computer Partnership, a program funded by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to Hofstra in 2017. In the program, Hofstra professors work with local high school teachers to develop a computationally enhanced biology curriculum.

Bennington joined Hofstra’s faculty in 1993. His research in paleontology involves the quantitative analysis of the fossil record to learn about the evolution of ecological communities over long intervals of time. His projects through the years have involved studies of marine ecosystems in the Devonian, Carboniferous, and Cretaceous periods, as well as the statistical analysis of fossil footprints. He is also a member of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the New York Council of Professional Geologists and the Long Island Association of Professional Geologists.

“My interest in different areas of earth science goes back to the people around me,” Bennington said. “I’ve managed my entire life to associate with people that are much smarter and more interesting than I am, and it rubs off.”