Tulsa native Ryan Henry made history in two ways when he was recently named the winner of the 2007 AAPG Teacher of the Year.
The first way is biographical: At 27, Henry is the youngest person ever to receive the TOTY award, which is sponsored annually by the AAPG Foundation to promote earth sciences education.
And in keeping with his age, he had the perfect phrase when told he was the youngest recipient ever. “That’s awesome!” he laughed.
The second way, however, is perhaps even more unusual: Henry is being honored for his efforts while teaching at Street School in Tulsa -- not a typical setting when one thinks of earth sciences.
Henry, who recently moved with his family to teach in Denver, was nominated by the Tulsa Geological Society (TGS) and will be honored on Monday, April 2, during the All-Convention Luncheon at the AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif.
He will be honored for teaching all science classes offered at Street School, including: physical science, biology, earth science and geology.
“Holy cow! I’d like to thank you guys for recognizing teachers,” he said. “I mean, this is the kind of thing that keeps people fired up!”
As Teacher of the Year, Henry will receive $5,000 from the AAPG Foundation; $2,500 goes to Street School in Tulsa for educational use under Henry’s direction, and the other half is for his personal use. He also receives an all-expense paid trip to the annual convention in Long Beach, Calif.
Born and raised in Tulsa -- in a nature boy sort of way -- Henry grew up backpacking, canoeing, swimming in creeks and going on family ski trips in Colorado. And, like a lot of teenagers, his outlook on school, higher education and life was an aimless trajectory -- he was going somewhere, he just didn’t know where.
“What got me through high school was basically sports and art,” he said. “It was the active things.”
That all changed when he began taking geology classes at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and he recalled geology professor Ronald Konig connecting to him with the words, “The earth is one big dude.”
“From then on,” Henry said, “I was hooked on geology.”
‘On Fire for Teaching’
Henry eventually received both his bachelor’s degree in earth science (2003) and master’s degree in secondary science (2004) from UA, and he credits geology with being the inspiration for his entire education.
“Every class had a field trip,” Henry said, “and we would actually study the things outside that you talked about in the classroom. That was really kind of the point where I was like, ‘Wow, this is what learning is like!’ And, learning can be so much fun!”
Still, Henry didn’t put much thought into teaching earth science until he was invited to help teach a fourth grade class about minerals and volcanoes during AGI’s Earth Science Week.
“I had a great time!” he said.
During his master’s program, Henry taught at the Lake Fayetteville Environmental Study Center, as well as at the Springdale Public School District in Arkansas.
With the guidance of his advisers, Henry came out of the UA MAT program “like a veteran teacher,” he said. And when he landed the science teaching position at Street School back in his hometown he “was on fire for teaching!”
Street School is an alternative school of choice program for Tulsa youth ages 14-19, providing “at risk” students an opportunity -- one they otherwise might not get -- to receive a high school diploma.
Henry, who uses expressive words such as “cool,” “neat,” “amazing” and “awesome,” said he kept his students motivated by teaching them things that were relevant.
“I tried to make a connection to their life,” he said. “I probably spent 40-50 percent of class, especially my geology classes, in the field studying the things we had talked about in class.
“I spent a lot of time focusing on natural resources.”
Always the grateful student, Henry implemented into his classroom teaching the theory from his former UA professor, Walter Manger: “Geology is learned by the soles of your shoes, not by the seat of your pants.”
“Street School was a perfect place for blending my love of hands-on inquiry-based science,” he said, “and my love for experiential outdoor learning.”
‘A Positive Difference’
While at Street School, Henry started and wrote a grant for a program he named “Wilderness Adventures.” This program provided all Street School students the chance to enjoy climbing, canoeing, camping and mountain biking over one- to four-day expeditions.
In fact, the day after he married his wife, Katie, they led a group of students they had been working with all year on a three-day canoe trip on the Buffalo River in Arkansas.
Last summer, Henry moved to Denver to teach his “one true love,” earth science, as part of the seventh grade curriculum for Graland Country Day School.
Is there hope for the future of education?
Henry thinks so -- and he’s committed to the cause.
“I knew I wanted to make a positive difference in the world,” Henry said.
“We (teachers) are more than just purveyors of knowledge,” he added. “We as a country need to reprioritize our commitment to education. Education is the only way to get better and it’s sad there’s not more emphasis.”
Since the birth of his newborn son, Lief, Henry has pondered the idea of getting a master’s in geology and working summer internships in the industry as a geologist.
“I’d love to maybe get out and actually work as a geologist for a while,” he said, “and go back to teaching once my son gets to that age where we can start taking big, fun family summer trips.”