Montana teacher discusses Yellowstone supervolcano on History Channel

Craig Beals talks to his honors chemistry class Friday morning at Billings Senior High School.

Craig Beals talks to his honors chemistry class Friday morning at Billings Senior High School.

In the classroom, Billings Senior High science teacher Craig Beals knows how to get his students’ attention. Things that go boom are always popular, and you really can’t go wrong with fire.

This Monday, Beals will see if he can capture the interest of nationwide television viewers with a show featuring some of those same attractants, only on a much bigger scale.

The History Channel show, “Secret Earth: Yellowstone Supervolcano,” will air at 8 p.m. in Montana. It will feature Beals doing what he does best, explaining complex science through vivid, hands-on demonstrations, with lots of fire and explosions.

If the pilot is successful, Beals could end up hosting a whole series of “Secret Earth” shows for the History Channel. The 36-year-old teacher already has a long list of accomplishments, including being chosen as the Montana teacher of the year in 2015, but a national TV show is pretty heady stuff, so heady that he can’t describe how it feels.

“I wish I was an English teacher, because I don’t know the words,” he said. “I don’t think it will sink in until the show airs.”

Beals is a native of Billings, a 1997 graduate of Skyview High School. His mother, Vivian, is a retired elementary school teacher. He earned a degree in biology and broadfield science (teaching) from Montana State University and later earned a master’s in zoology from Miami (Ohio) University.

He has been at Senior High for 11 years, teaching earth sciences and biology, and this year he is teaching chemistry and honors chemistry. His summers are busy, too.

He works as a biology facilitator for Miami University’s Earth Expeditions program, which involves leading graduate students who are doing conservation research all over the world. The project has taken him to Mongolia, Belize, Namibia and Borneo.

In 2008, he was part of a 20-person team on a PolarTREC research expedition that spent six weeks at the summit of Greenland’s ice sheet, where they studied atmospheric changes, collecting what Beals described as “some of the most important Arctic data ever.”

For the past two summers, working on a grant from the Murdock Trust, he did research in the Beartooth and Spanish Peaks mountains, studying the effects of climate change by replicating historical photographs and then quantifying the change in the treeline over time.

Meanwhile, he continued to teach at Senior High, and five or six years ago he was looking for a new way to reach students who were struggling with their coursework. He took a cue from a friend of his, Paul Andersen, a science teacher at Bozeman High School—and the 2011 Montana teacher of the year—who had had some success with tutorial videos he posted on YouTube. Beals started making his own videos aimed at students who needed extra help, and later for students missing classes because of sports.

The videos proved popular and useful, and Beals found that his students were sharing them with friends and relatives all over the country. He figures he’s done 100 of them by now, unintentionally honing his on-air skills for the day the History Channel came knocking.

The “Secret Earth” idea was hatched by History Channel producers working with Grizzly Creek Films, a Bozeman production company founded by some of the first graduates of a master’s program in science and natural history filmmaking at MSU.

Just another day in the classroom for Montana teacher Craig Beals.

At first, Beals said, the History Channel just had a concept, the idea of doing a “big science” show. After working on several different concepts, they decided to go with a host-led show. The folks at Grizzly Creek suggested Andersen, but he was so busy by then—he is on a two-year leave of absence from Bozeman High and is an official YouTube Edu Guru—that he had to decline.

However, Beals said, Andersen told them, “I’m not the kind of guy who would throw himself out of an airplane to prove that gravity exists, but I know this guy…”

So, in the fall of 2014, Grizzly Creek more or less auditioned Beals via Skype. They liked what they saw, and so did the History Channel. The upshot was that Beals spent five weeks last summer filming the hour-long pilot show.

As you can see if you watch this History Channel promotional video, Beals has a lot of fun exploring the science behind the Yellowstone supervolcano, which has already erupted in three massive explosions over hundreds of thousands of years and which could erupt again at any time.

For the show, Beals and his team shot off a cannon to demonstrate how the buildup of pressure causes explosive releases of energy. He climbed into a portable pool and fired a handgun underwater to show the movement of shock waves.

Most spectacularly of all, he jammed a few bags of chemicals into a hole in the ground on a ranch near Joliet to simulate a supervolcano, then used a drone to film the movement of the dust cloud over a map of the United States superimposed on the land.

“So really, it’s just my teaching but out in a different environment,” he said.

There was a script, Beals said, “but they found out pretty quickly that I can’t follow a script.” So he read it through, to get the drift of where they wanted the show to go, then winged it, ad-libbing the whole thing.

He said it was surprisingly fun. The only stressful aspect of the project was his facial hair. There were basically three Craigs in the show, he said, Teacher Craig, with a one-day beard growth, Expedition Craig with a two-day beard and Adventure Craig with a three-day beard.

So, depending on what segment they were filming, they always had to worry about his beard matching the scene. He chose his own wardrobe. His world travels taught him that a polyester Wrangler button-down short-sleeve shirt was incredibly versatile and easy to wash—just dip it in a stream and wring it out.

They also did some filming at Senior High. Four of his students who graduated last year are in the show, as is Dan Bartsch, a fellow science teacher at Senior.

All Beals can do now is wait. He and the cast and crew are having a private premiere party Monday night at the Art House Cinema & Pub in downtown Billings. He’ll be there will his wife Christi and their two children, 5 and 6 years old.

He’s not sure what he’ll do if the show does well and he’s asked to film a whole series. Asked if he’d have to a take a leave of absence, he answered, “Nobody will even start that conversation.” Everything is riding on how well the show does.

“If it stops there”—if there’s no series—“I’ve got class to teach the next day, so I’m totally fine with it,” Beals said.

“The only thing that makes me nervous about the show is, what does it mean for the future of me and my family? Because I absolutely love what I’m doing.”

Reprinted with permission from Last Best News, an independent online news site dedicated to telling the story and covering the culture, people and places of Billings and Eastern Montana.

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