You would expect the winner of AAPG's Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Natural Resources in the Earth Sciences – popularly known as the earth sciences teacher of the year – to have a love of science and teaching.
What makes L. Stef Paramoure, this year's recipient, different is she likes, really likes, teaching it to the age group that can be the most challenging for any teacher and any subject.
She teaches earth sciences to middle school students – a sometimes confusing, emotional collection of hormones and attention deficit disorders.
And she likes it.
"Actually," says Paramoure, who teaches at Canyon Middle School in New Braunfels, Texas, "I think middle school is a great age to teach. Students start out in kindergarten thinking they can do anything: drawing, singing, theater. Sometimes, they can lose that confidence – however, in middle school, I have one more chance."
And in taking that chance, she has excelled.
"It is this very reason that I think I make connections with my students,” she said, “because at one point, I was that student sitting in the classroom asking, 'Why do we need to know this?'"
Admittedly, she says, she wasn't always happy with the answers.
"I always felt like science was important,” she said, “but my personal experience in my elementary and high school was not very favorable."
Paramoure says it wasn't until she started – but just started – her science education at Texas Lutheran University that a "new world" opened up to her.
"I started to appreciate science, but it wasn’t until I started teaching science in middle school that I saw the endless everyday science connections that permeate throughout our daily lives."
The Real World
Paramoure says her goal always has been to bring science to life and make it relevant to students – to answer that question.
Her Web site (“Welcome to the World of Stef Paramoure” – yes, in the world of earth science education she’s a bit of a celebrity) provides all the clues you to need to understand her passion:
“Knowledge is POWER! Get Some – Give Some.
“I am designing this Web site to share my podcasts, my pedagogy experiences and my passion. I have a vision to use technology as a way to ignite the young minds of today. I strongly believe in children as a valuable, inexhaustible resource that deserves to be nurtured and inspired.
Young minds of today will not only care for our world tomorrow but they will have the opportunity to shape the future ...”
"I use current events and multimedia to capture their interest,” she said, “and then the learning comes naturally as they work to answer their own questions and satisfy their natural curiosity."
Some of those pedagogical techniques include a "Spotlight on Space" program that resulted in star-gazing parties for seventh graders at her school.
Another is called “Science in the Real World,” an impressive, ambitious podcast series she has been working on to spotlight real world science.
Some of those titles currently include “Weathering”; “Energy Transformations”; “Wind Turbine System”; and “Adam Lee, Geologist.”
She believes podcasts are an integral part of the mix.
"I have used podcasting in my classrooms for the last three years and witnessed the power of technology on the attitudes and success of all student types," she said.
On that technology front, she says she will help repay the generosity of AAPG by developing more Earth science podcast episodes to help students build understanding of science content as well as encourage them to consider the many career paths available.
When Like Became Love
Like the students she's teaching, Paramoure needed some extra incentive to even get into the field.
"I started out working toward a teaching degree in reading," she said, but then the state of Texas offered a “Teach for Texas Grant” for those willing to relocate to high needs areas. It was in one of those communities that Paramoure decided to give science a try.
But it was just a try – the love affair came later. Like any relationship, it took, and takes, work.
"I have been privileged to be part of the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Math for four years,” she said. “Through this organization I attend 105 hours of professional development each year, and I have been exposed to excellent science content workshops as well as pedagogy training.
“The TRC awarded me a podcasting specialist grant to create science podcasts for middle school science," she said, adding that there “I have witnessed first-hand the excitement."
Paramoure is aware of the conventional wisdom that American schools are falling behind their European and Asian counterparts, but says the issue is complicated.
"It is hard to compare the various education systems,” she commented. “Schools in the United States do not have the same requirements as many foreign schools."
In her own case, she says, echoing what most teachers wish, she'd like more time.
"I have 45 minutes a day to create an engaging environment that balances hands-on and minds-on experiences,” she said. “I would love to have more!"
Hearts and Minds
More to the point, she says, "science education is vital! Knowledge is power and in order for our society to make powerful decisions concerning problems facing our nation and world, we need to be well informed."
And that information is rooted, she believes, in the sciences.
"Further, science is the backbone for improving technologies that will be needed to solve issues such as energy production, climate and resource utilization."
Before the information can be harnessed – before you can convince a 14-year-old about the wonders of space, for example – Paramoure feels you have to convince them of something else.
"We need to capture the hearts and minds of our youth so they will be inspired to pursue" fields in science, technology, engineering and math to meet the challenges the new world presents.
Part of it, she says, is giving back to students something they always had: possibilities.
She says part of her joy is being able to rekindle students' "I can do anything” attitude.
"I am invigorated when I see a light turn on," she said.
In this way, she says, students enter high school knowing “you must believe to achieve” – and then, "get to work to make it happen!"