This year’s AAPG Foundation’s Teacher of the Year honoree admits science wasn’t always her first love.
“Early in school, I did not care for science at all,” confessed Karen Waterbury, a teacher at St. Mary’s School in Mount Carmel, Ill. “It wasn’t until high school that my love began to grow; and it was because science became more hands on, more about exploring and figuring things out in a real way.”
That passion has grown into a labor of love spanning four decades. She currently teaches the entire fourth-grade class and one fifth-grade science course.
Finding Her Niche
Waterbury said she feels an affinity for this age group in particular.
“I taught third grade for 16 years, then I went down to second grade,” she said. “That wasn’t for me.”
She settled in with fourth grade and has been working with this age group since.
“Fourth graders can explore on their own, you can have more discussions and they have the ability to research,” said Waterbury.
Though her personal preference is to teach fourth and fifth grade, she thinks science shouldn’t be ignored in the curriculum for younger students.
“Anything you help them develop young is going to take hold and they’re going to appreciate it so much more later,” said Waterbury. “You can read a book and find out information, but a hands-on approach (of science) at an early age will create a love and foster a basic understanding of why it’s important.”
In many ways, Waterbury feels the earth sciences are the perfect pairing for the needs of today’s children.
“The students of today have to be busy, have to be interactive. That’s the group of children we are raising,” she said. “The more hands-on things that we can do, the more group activities, the better.”
Reflecting on her own lack of interest in science when she was younger, she can appreciate what today’s children require in a modern classroom.
“Instead of sitting down and reading – and sometimes you need to sit down and read about things – you have to put it into practice.”
Several years ago, she began experimenting with that hands-on approach by growing plants in the classroom with her students. Slowly, the simple science of growing plants morphed into a more interactive exploration of subjects like geology and, specifically, the oil and gas industry.
Simple experiments like mixing layers of oil and water together to observe how they separate is an exciting visual experiment for her students, she said.
“At the fourth grade they are amazed by everything!”
Also in Waterbury’s class, students get to “create fossils.” They watch crystals bloom into existence and build simulations of the substructure of soil that show where the oil “lives.”
“I love being able to explain to kids about how they get oil out of the ground, so we’ve been trying to build a derrick using straws and paper clips,” Waterbury said. “It hasn’t been successful yet but my fifth-graders want to try it again.”
Hands-on interaction – because of the children’s age and because of how their world is shaped by real-time technology – is a natural fit for teaching geosciences.
“They don’t want to sit there and watch you perform an experiment. They want to do it,” she said.
Another experiment they love is one in which they make natural gas using hard-boiled eggs for animal matter and lettuce for plant matter, which they measure out using a balance scale before placing in a plastic bottle.
“They use a graduated cylinder to measure the amount of pond water to carefully pour down the side of the bottle and not just directly onto the sand. The pond water represents the ocean. Finally, they stretch a balloon across the top and set in a warm place to observe what happens,” said Waterbury.
“We discuss each of these steps and journal and draw what they have done and what they hypothesize will happen. After a few days, we look for physical and chemical changes,” she added.
Creating gasses is easily one of the students’ most memorable experiments of the year.
“When the room comes in and it smells, it’s like ‘yeah, that’s the gas we’re making over there,’” laughed Waterbury. “But the best part is to see the way the kids are enthused about what they are doing.”
And, the hands-on experiments are especially important because of how much technology is infused into every element of children’s lives today, Waterbury pointed out.
“They are very into the information world we live in. Our kids are so inquisitive and have all these resources. You constantly have to stay one step ahead of them,” Waterbury said. “But science is always changing too, so we have to move with it and the students have to move with it if we are going to keep our nation running.”
A Community Built on Oil and Gas
The oil and gas industry has been a major component of Mount Carmel’s local economy over the years, and that influence persists today.
“We have oil wells all around us here,” said Waterbury. “There are even some pump jacks right here in town. So when we’re talking about the drilling, it’s easy to make it relevant to them.”
Many of the students live on large farm operations in Mount Carmel, and they understand they will be the stewards of the land one day.
“It’s easier to personalize the lesson, because if a drilling company comes in, their family doesn’t want the land destroyed,” said Waterbury. “All the drilling companies and geologists have to be responsible about what they’re doing.”
Waterbury emphasizes to her students that the resources under the ground are important, but the land itself is just as important, which she demonstrates with a seemingly simple experiment.
“We mine chocolate chips from cookies and we talk about land damages,” she said.
The cookie experiment demonstrates profit and loss: the chocolate chips represent profit, but each crumble created from the extraction process illustrates the damages for which they would have to pay.
“It’s great when students take ownership of their role in protecting the land and resources. They think ‘This is my soil, my parents’ livelihood. We have to protect it,’” said Waterbury.
The Environment of a Classroom
Alice Wirth, principal of St. Mary’s, has had the unique opportunity to see Waterbury in action for 27 years.
“She excels in bringing her science and math classes to life,” said Wirth. “The students are imaginative, creative, and not afraid to ask questions and seek answers in Mrs. Waterbury’s safe and respectful learning atmosphere.”
Wirth also praised Waterbury for “encouraging students to reach beyond their comfort zones.”
For her years of dedication and her passion for instilling in her students a love for the natural world and their role within it, the AAPG Foundation chose Waterbury as 2016’s Teacher of the Year.
When Waterbury was notified of her award, she had a unique reaction.
“I was shocked,” Waterbury exclaimed. “There have got to be a lot of teachers out there who do this and want their students to excel.”
Though she is thrilled to be recognized, Waterbury said she feels the teaching profession in general should be honored and appreciated for all they do. And like most teachers, she considers what she does to be much more than just a job.
“I’m always thinking about my kids and about what I can do to stoke their enthusiasm,” she said. “And yes, I refer to them as my kids; because they are my kids.”
The honor from the AAPG Foundation comes with a $6,000 prize to be split between Waterbury and St. Mary’s School. She will also receive an expense-paid trip to the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Calgary where she will be presented her award at the All-Convention Luncheon.