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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When Johnny Cash sang "Ring of Fire," geology was probably the last thing on his mind.

(Soundbite of song, "Ring of Fire)

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Musician): (Singing) And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire…

HANSEN: But when you factor geoscientist Richard B. Alley into the equation, a song about love becomes a learning tool for budding geology students at Penn State University.

(Soundbite of song, "Ring of Fire)

Professor RICHARD B. ALLEY (Geoscientist): (Singing) Around a burning ring of fire.

HANSEN: This man in black appears on a homemade educational video, one of many Richard B. Alley has made as the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University. He joins us from member station WPSU in State College, Pennsylvania. Hey, professor.

Prof. ALLEY: It's great to talk to you. Thanks for having for having me.

HANSEN: Good to talk to you, too. I saw some of your stuff on the web. How long have you been doing this? Does this work?

Prof. ALLEY: Oh, a couple of years, and we hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALLEY: It seems like the students are having a good time, so that's worth something.

HANSEN: And you're attracting students to the geology classes there?

Prof. ALLEY: We, in this particular class, are just shy of 1,000 per semester. And we usually have to close it out because we just don't have room for them.

HANSEN: So, what gave you the idea to do it this way, when - sing and dance and, you know, talk about earthquakes?

Prof. ALLEY: Well, I love music. And I'm trying to reach the student. When you go to 900, 1,000 in a class, I don't know their names. I can't get into their heads, they can't get into my head easily. And so, how do we personalize it? How do we give them something that's extra, in exchange for them putting up with this big class?

HANSEN: And the students in class, do you find that their grades are improving? They're actually learning the stuff that you're teaching?

Prof. ALLEY: It seems like the grades have come up. And we put a big smile on that.

HANSEN: You have your guitar with you?

Prof. ALLEY: I do, indeed.

HANSEN: You're working on a new song?

Prof. ALLEY: We have a few around. And this one probably shouldn't be done by guitar. This one should be done by piano because we're trying to channel Billy Joel here, a little bit, with "The Piano Man."

HANSEN: Oh, so, is this called "Geoman?"

Prof. ALLEY: It is, indeed, called "Geoman."

(Soundbite of song, "Geoman")

Prof. ALLEY: (Singing) Sing us a song, you're the Geoman. What was and what is and will be on this blue-green ball spinning as fast as we can, with rocks, water, air, you and me.

HANSEN: Dr. Richard Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University. He joined us from WPSU in State College. Thanks very much. And good luck with this - well, it's not unorthodox, but this unique way of teaching.

Prof. ALLEY: Well, thank you for chatting with me and stay tuned, we've got some more coming.

(Soundbite of song, "Geoman")

Prof. ALLEY: (Singing) This oxygen changed the air's chemistry, and it broke down so much greenhouse gas that the…

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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