On May 31, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law Senate Bill 352, which effectively designates Nelsonite as the state rock of Virginia. The bill, carried by Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), came about due to the joint efforts of Piedmont Virginia Community College students and faculty.
The project, a collaboration between geology and political science students, first began in fall 2015. Led by PVCC Assistant Political Science Professor Connie Jorgensen and PVCC Associate Geology Professor Larry Tiezzi, a group of four PVCC students began the daunting task of making Nelsonite the state rock of Virginia after their research revealed that Virginia was one of only five states
that did not have a designated rock or mineral. The student team was comprised of Holly Green; Owen Krug; TeShawna “Tish” Quarles; and Michelle Stanislaus.
According to the students, Nelsonite, named after Nelson County, was selected because the rock played a key role in Virginia history, having boosted the state economy in the early 1900s through
mining the titanium for paint.
“It’s a rock that was literally discovered in Virginia and had a pretty important economic significance in the region in which it was found,” said Virginia State Geologist David Spears. “It was mined in Nelson County for about 70 years to make some important economic materials, specifically paint pigment. It replaced lead as the primary pigment in white paint, and Nelsonite was the source of the titanium that replaced lead. That was very significant at the time.”
In order to take their project from a class discussion all the way to the state capital, the student team had to go through a series of steps to ensure that their proposal would be considered by the General Assembly. They began by collecting hundreds of signatures, obtaining support and raising awareness for the initiative. They then approached Senator Creigh Deeds about sponsoring the bill. Deeds agreed and joined the students when they made their first presentation to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in January. Both the Senate and the House approved the bill in the months that followed, allowing Nelsonite to officially become the state rock earlier this year.
“It feels really good,” said Michelle Stanislaus, a 54-year-old student who graduated from PVCC in May. “We were able to change state history and it was easy to do. This project really taught us that the government is accessible to the people.”
PVCC student Owen Krug says that for him the project was really about taking action and making a positive impact.
“This project was a way for us to actually change something,” Krug said. “It was a way to have a school project actually make a difference.”
According to assistant political science professor Connie Jorgensen, the intent of the project was to show students that citizens can make a difference.
“It’s important for students to understand that there’s life outside the classroom,” said Jorgensen. “This project proved to our students that one person, or a small group of people, can make change. The state rock may not affect many people, but now the students know that if they see a problem, legislators will listen to them and will help. They see government as a positive instead of a big, bad, black hole.”
Stanislaus says that one of her favorite parts of the project was how the political science and geology students were able to come together to turn an idea into reality.
“One of the best benefits of this project was that we had two disciplines working together,” Stanislaus said. “How often do you see political science students and geology students working on the same project? Especially on a project that’s about so much more than a grade. The learning experience has just been phenomenal, and we did it—we actually made history happen.”
Associate geology professor Larry Tiezzi says that he’s incredibly proud of the students and all they’ve accomplished, a sentiment, he notes, that is shared by their fellow students across campus.
“Ever since the bill was passed, I see other students coming up to these four and congratulating them for their excellent work,” said Tiezzi. “What they did matters and other students noticed. The enthusiasm of the students involved in this project is infectious, and I am very proud of the students for seeing this project through to the end, long after the class was over and no grades were involved. They are amazing.”
To learn more about the Nelsonite project, visit www.pvcc.edu/nelsonite.