Rock solid professor

Scott Burns, a youthful 61-year-old, will tell anyone who listens that “geology rocks!”
He has been teaching the subject to undergraduate and graduate students for 19 years at Portland State and 39 years overall and still finds it “fun and exciting.”

Scott Burns, a youthful 61-year-old, will tell anyone who listens that “geology rocks!”
He has been teaching the subject to undergraduate and graduate students for 19 years at Portland State and 39 years overall and still finds it “fun and exciting.”

His teaching style is never dull. He engages his students from the moment he steps into the room with a multi-media approach and opens the discussion by focusing on the current event of the day (be it an earthquake, flood, volcano or landslides) to show how geology is ever-changing and affects everyone.

Two screens are in constant motion as music relating to the topic is played. Recently it was Jimmy Buffet and the volcano eruption in Anchorage, Alaska, the flood in Fargo, N.D., and a new volcano island in the South Pacific.
“Geology is ever-changing,” Burns said, having just returned from a field trip in Costa Rica. “Any place in Portland has a different story. Geology is where all the sciences meet. It’s very interdisciplinary. The engineering geology department at PSU is one of the top programs in the country.”

Geology comes into play whether you are building a home and need to know about landslides, to earthquake protection, radon, flooding or any other natural hazard, he said. Burns has been active in mapping landslides in the Pacific Northwest.

“Geology touches all the vital areas of our lives,” Burns said.

With three degrees under his belt, countless speaking engagements, participation in numerous professional organizations and extensive writing, he is extremely active. He also teaches for Stanford in foreign countries during the summer.

His career began as chemistry major but his falling in love with a girl led him to take a geology class that she was taking.

“I lost the girl but fell in love with the subject,” he said.

Burns said geologists are documenting the story of climate change.

“It’s normal. It’s happened before,” he said. “1,200 years ago it was incredibly cool and then incredibly hot very shortly after. What makes it critical now is the population on the globe. It could have huge consequences, a rising sea level obliterating parts of the globe, creating deserts, floods.”

He said geologists are now good at predicting landslides, floods and volcanoes due to global positioning systems and satellites but they are still working on predicting earthquakes. One tool, Earth Scope, is helping note the changes in faults on earth.

In Oregon, they are watching South Sister volcano because an eruption is “imminent.”

There is new laser technology, called LIDAR, which sees old landslides through trees so geologists can better determine where structures should not be built. Oregon’s infrastructure is old and this new instrumentation helps in determining where bridges, roads, seaports and rail stations should be built.

He said stimulus money is helping geologists fund earth maps to better predict natural disasters.

Geologists are involved in routing of highways and new housing that are dependent upon soil and other conditions. Burns said Wilsonville has the challenge of where it will get more water for its expanding population.

Oregon is one of the few states with good supply of water. What happens when other states want its water?

Geologists are involved in water cleanup and diversion, and in pollution and radon issues. Oregon is one of 31 states that require geologists to be registered.
“Our concern is safety,” Burns said.

While not immersed in the world of rocks and landslides, Burns and his wife, Glenda, like to ski, hike and camp. Last year he traveled to Chile, Costa Rica, China, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada. Glenda is working on her bachelor’s degree in international studies with a minor in Canadian studies. They have three grown children. Burns also plays guard on a faculty basketball team.

“I’m the oldest guy on the court but I can still score lots of points,” he said. “I can’t play defense as I used to.”

He also likes to golf, play tennis, football and baseball. He is president of the Downtown Rotary Club, a service organization that will be building a community outreach center next January for the Bradley Angle House, which protects battered women.

He is completing a book, Cataclysm on the Columbia, about the great Missoula floods, to be published by Portland State’s Ooligan Press.

Burns is on the Rolodex of Portland’s major media as a key contact for issues involving geologists. He won the George Hoffman Award from Portland State in 2007, plus many others during his career for being a distinguished faculty member. 

A rarity, Burns is a sixth generation Oregonian.