Soil-covered syllabus: Dr. Dirt shows S.J. students the world of wonders beneath their feet

By Alex Breitler

June 01, 2009

Record Staff Writer

STOCKTON – He jabs toothpicks into colored marshmallows, and voilà: A lesson on molecular chemistry.

He scoops buckets of water from farmers’ ditches, breaks out the microscopes and there you have it: An experiment in microbiology.

He passes around an ant-eating, blood-squirting desert-horned lizard, and presto: The children are herpetologists.

Dale Sanders didn’t feel all that effective when he taught college students years ago at the University of California, Berkeley. But stick the 69-year-old scientist in a class full of fourth-graders, and he shines.

Thrilled with the lizard, the children cry out in unison, “Thank you, Dr. Dirt,” for that’s how Sanders is known at Kohl Open Elementary School and just about everywhere else. It’s on his license plate, after all.

Dr. Dirt isn’t about books and lectures. He likes the Einstein quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

And so, true to his name, he gets his hands dirty. Or worse. When he passed the lizard around, cupped between his palms, it relieved itself.

That’s OK. It’s all for science.

Sanders is one of about 35 retired scientists and engineers who can’t stay out of the classroom. They volunteer as part of the Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science, a San Joaquin County Office of Education program going strong for 16 years now.

Dr. Dirt, a tall man, stoops to hear the children’s questions. Sometimes he has to ask them to repeat themselves, for little children can be shy.

They cower a bit when he pulls out a rubber boa. But Dr. Dirt has a way to turn cringes into curiosity.

“This is the friendliest snake you’ll ever imagine,” he said, explaining how he used to catch them and his sisters would wear them on their arms like bracelets.

He is like a grandfather.

There was the time when Dr. Dirt took the children to the Cosumnes River to search for birds and critters. It poured rain, teacher Nora Bennington recalled. But they stayed the whole day.

One day he brought buckets of mud to class. They added water and mixed it up. The kids grabbed magnifying glasses and looked for anything darting or moving about.

“It makes them powerful observers,” Bennington said. “The more you look, the more you see.”

Sanders grew up spending summers at an old family lumber mill, where he’d rummage through wood piles and get bitten by alligator lizards. He was an ecologist for Contra Costa County and then lectured at Berkeley.

For 10 years now, he’s volunteered at five schools. Here’s a chance, he figures, to reach younger kids, to make sure they never lose their curiosity and inquisitiveness. To correct what’s been termed “nature deficit disorder.”

How does a college professor dumb it down for elementary-school kids? He doesn’t.

“I try to tell them it should be the same thing,” Sanders said. “I try to teach them like they’re students at a university, and I have the same kind of expectations.

“Anyway, my mother says I’m still in the fifth grade in a lot of ways. I just put myself in their place.”

Pretty soon, Sanders and three grandchildren – he does have three of his own – will spend a weekend at the family cabin in Calaveras County. After the sun goes down, Dr. Dirt will pull out a black light, and they’ll wander the wooded property searching for glowing termites, flying bugs and anything else that shines.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or

Are you the next Dr. Dirt?

The San Joaquin County Office of Education is seeking volunteers for its Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science program. To learn more, visit