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Grad student Billy Thomas finds unlikely links in coal mining, intramurals, and a future teaching career

February 15, 2017

Billy Thomas poses with his coal mining helmet in McComas Hall.
Billy Thomas is studying to get his master's degree in integrated STEM education and serves as the intramural sports graduate assistant for Recreational Sports. He spends his days preparing for a career that'll give back to those he worked alongside in a coal mine during a gap year between degrees.

It sounds like a riddle in need of a solution: what do coal mining, intramural sports, and teaching in a technical school have in common?

Billy Thomas can solve it because it’s the story of his life. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from Virginia Tech in 2013 and a master’s in the same subject in 2015, Thomas is pursuing an additional master’s degree — this one in integrated STEM education. But in that gap year, Thomas left Blacksburg and headed north to West Virginia to work for Arch Coal, the second largest coal producer in the United States.

Thomas began as an engineer, tasked with outlining and designing the next large underground coal operation for Arch Coal in the region. Following this assignment, he began to work underground as a laborer alongside other miners. He completed his underground apprenticeship in December 2015, passed his certified underground miner exam, and began a third job with Arch Coal — this time, completing time studies on the efficiency of equipment operators and procedures. Thomas obtained his foreman’s papers in June 2016 before leaving Arch Coal a month later to pursue his second master’s degree.

And though it may be hard to draw connections between working underground as a coal miner, studying education, and heading up Virginia Tech’s intramural sports programs, the interactions are undoubtedly there.

“Much of the mining industry is all about accountability,” said Thomas. “You’ve got to be willing to tell someone, ‘Hey, stop doing that.’ It’s all about standards.

“Being a sports official and being a teacher are the same. What’re your standards? You are the first defense against everything on the field or in the classroom, and you have to meet your standards every day to be sure you’re teaching those around you the right things.”

His passion for intramural sports is rooted in his time at Virginia Tech. Thomas began by officiating flag football, basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, and — the most competitive of all — innertube water polo. Then, for the remainder of his first stint at Virginia Tech, he served as an intramural sports supervisor. He was named Intramural Supervisor of the Year in 2011-12 and 2012-13. He received All-American honors as an official at the 2014 NIRSA National Flag Football Championships.

Thomas’ current role as the intramural sports graduate assistant includes responsibilities for hiring and managing more than 300 officials, scorekeepers, and supervisors. On the side, he works as a college football official, refereeing in the ODAC and USA South conferences.

In addition to his work with Recreational Sports, he’s a full-time graduate student, planning to finish up in spring 2018. When he completes his program, Thomas hopes to work as a teacher or an administrator in a school system that appreciates the benefits of technology and engineering education. He became fascinated by the theories as he worked at Arch Coal alongside miners who had less formal education and fewer educational opportunities.

“The theories of integrated STEM education take the standards of learning associated with science, math, technology, and reading concepts and have the students apply their knowledge in an age-appropriate design-based format,” said Thomas. "Students learn better when you, for example, refer to the way mitochondria look and operate in simple terms and examples instead of using technical terminology to explain what mitochondria is and does in a cell.

“How education traditionally looks puts blinders on students,” said Thomas. “Students tend to identify content and conclude that, ‘This is math. This is science.’ And you don’t see the connections between the two. This program would build, fix, and optimize education.”

Thomas is auditing a class this semester where he is learning about indoor plants in a lecture-lab environment, as the structure lines up with what he hopes to bring to statewide educational systems following graduation.

“My degree satisfies my natural tendency to be inventive and constructive, while the job provides time for me to improve my instructional abilities, all while participating in activities I love to engage in,” said Thomas.

Written by Holly Paulette.

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