US. microbiologist Cornelius Bernardus Van Neil once said that science, “in essence … is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in.”
That noted, the earth sciences may have found its latest modern day Van Neil in Mary Fitts.
Fitts, eighth grade earth sciences teacher at Sierra Middle School in Parker, Colo., is this year’s AAPG Earth Science Teacher of the Year (TOTY) – chosen because of the effective and creative ways she encourages her students to investigate and comprehend their world.
“Inquiry is one way of learning that satisfies our students’ natural curiosity,” Fitts said. “It gives them the power of putting the puzzle pieces together themselves, rather than just being ‘fed’ information.”
Fitts, who began her teaching career in 1982 and who was nominated by the Rocky Mountain Section, is the eleventh AAPG Teacher of the Year, a Foundation-funded award designed to honor “excellence in the teaching of natural resources in the earth sciences.”
The national award of $5,000 will be split with $2,500 designated for educational use at Sierra Middle School under Fitts’ supervision and the other half for her personal use.
She also receives an all-expense paid trip to the AAPG Annual Convention in San Antonio April 20-23 where she will be presented her award at the All-Convention Luncheon.
Fitts began her studies in the field of medicine at Rice University. After taking her first geology class, she said, that all changed.
“I had a couple of professors at Rice University, Dr. John Anderson and Dr. H.C. Clark, who were really good teachers,” she said. “They both clearly conveyed their interest and passion for geology to all of their students.”
She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Rice and worked as a soils geologist before choosing a teaching career.
“I worked as a geologist for a couple of years and had flirted with the idea of becoming a teacher in college,” Fitts said. “I realized that what I wanted to do was teach kids what I loved – geology.”
In the Classroom
Fitts, who has been a Colorado resident since 1984, is being honored largely because of her teaching philosophy, which encourages students to engage in inquiry-based scientific studies in the classroom and then apply the solutions to real world events.
Conceivably, Fitts’ enthusiasm in teaching earth sciences may have started as a young girl. She laughed when revealing her bias for science classes – “with the exception of physics,” she said – and to being “interested in rocks and minerals.”
Today her passion for rocks continues, and Fitts confessed to using a portion of her TOTY money to buy “some good rock samples” to use in her classroom.
Fitts believes that being an earth sciences teacher is rewarding because “kids are naturally curious about their world, and love to learn about ‘their earth’ in a variety of ways.
A typical day in Fitts’ classroom begins with a “daily Science Starter (the warm-up),” she said, “Then we play a vocabulary game called the Chain Game.
“The Chain Game changes with whatever topic we are studying, and the different classes race each other for the best time.”
“It’s high stakes and very competitive,” she added.
Her unique approach to connecting with her students is both “fun and relaxing,” she admits.
“Once kids walk into your classroom and know that you care about them, then they want to learn.”
Fitts has not only won the respect of her students, she also is viewed by her academic peers as an “extraordinary teacher,” “role model,” “colleague” and “mentor.”
“(She’s) never satisfied with the status quo,” one of her colleagues said of her in recommending her for the AAPG award.
Fitts expressed her concern regarding the future of science education because of the standardized testing mandate in schools – a result of the No Child Left Behind Act.
“A lot of these state tests are of questionable quality,” she said, “and I think they defeat the intent of good science instruction.”
For example, Colorado’s state test uses a “shotgun” approach in the effect that it is given at every grade level and the topics are very diversified, she noted. Fitts maintains this approach creates a dilemma for science teachers.
“Research shows over and over that the best way to teach/learn science is with a true, in-depth inquiry approach,” she wrote.
Fitts does, however, find solace in the observation that her students are becoming conscientious of both energy and their environment, along with the effects that global warming has on their environment. She credits her students’ awareness to media coverage on the subjects, coupled with her inquiry-based teaching technique.
“Whether students are trying to identify a mineral, determine how a convection current works or proposing their own hypotheses about dinosaur behavior,” Fitts said, “it is my job as a responsible teacher to not only create opportunities for inquiry, but to also provide the tools, time and support to ensure that true understanding occurs.
“As a result,” she continued, “I hope that when my students go on to high school, they leave my class with a solid appreciation of ‘their earth’ and its resources, its dynamic nature and the desire to safeguard it for the next generation.”
More importantly, she concedes, “I believe that every single student I teach is capable of learning.”