As a kid, Rex Hanger saw fossils as free toys.
He was an Army brat. He was born in Germany but bounced around and ended up in Texas, which he called a “gold mine for fossils.”
Everywhere his father moved, Hanger could go outside and dig for fossils while other kids had to spend money on Legos and Hot Wheels.
He said he later learned of fossils’ true value as “real scientific specimens.”
“In high school I was told, ‘You know, Rex, you could have a career in this,’” Hanger said. “And that’s … I’ve never looked back.
“I still feel like I’m paid to play. I really do.”
Today, Hanger is a geology professor at UW-Whitewater.
The UW System on April 1 named Hanger one of three winners of the 27th annual Teaching Excellence Awards, which is the system’s highest recognition for faculty and academic staff.
“During his 19-year career at UW-Whitewater, Dr. Hanger has been a practitioner of multiple high-impact practices to support student success,” a system news release states.
Teaching was always part of Hanger’s family history. He said his mom taught soldiers, and his older sister went on to teach middle school in Texas and Arizona.
“It’s always been in my blood,” he said.
Hanger taught for a few years at George Washington University until officials there eliminated the geology department. He went to UW-Madison as a visiting professor for a year before he took the position at UW-W.
But the paths open to him are not open to everyone. Some of the same teachers who pushed him to chase his passions in geology told his sister—who also loved geology growing up—to get out of the field, that she should have kids, that “this wasn’t for her,” Hanger said.
“It was clear the only difference was our gender,” he said.
One reason why the UW System recognized Hanger is that he is a “strong advocate of inclusive excellence goals, particularly gender equity in the natural sciences,” the release states.
Of the 51 undergraduate researchers Hanger has mentored, nearly 75% have been women, according to the release. Two of the researchers were McNair Scholars, who are underrepresented students preparing for doctoral programs.
The system also praised Hanger for his teaching style, which gives students chances to work in the field.
“Clearly, geology begins and ends with rocks,” the professor said. “And there’s an old saying in geology that, ‘The best geologist is the one that’s seen the most rocks.’”
Hanger, 57, is teaching a field studies and geology class that involves travel around the country.
More and more, though, he has been taking his classes to where it all started for him: central Texas.
In September, he plans to take his class to where fossils “spill out of the ground.”
“It’s a way for me to touch back for things that I’ve loved since I was a little boy and sort of get that spirit, that excitement, with the students here,” he said.
It’s a way for him to show students the free toys.