Toshimi Fujikawa, a geology teacher in San Lorenzo, Calif., who has been praised by her peers for passionately helping students to discover knowledge and relevance in the geological world where they live, has been named the 2022 AAPG Foundation’s Teacher of the Year.
The honor arrives as she recently completed her fifth year of teaching geology at Arroyo High School, where she leads five sections of geology – a year-long course comprising mostly 10th-graders in classes of up to 36 students.
Fujikawa’s selection is a milestone of note for the Foundation’s TOTY initiative – she is the program’s 25th recipient.
“I am honored to be chosen … (and) I am passionate about teaching my geology class about California Bay Area’s regional geology,” Fujikawa said in response to her selection as this year’s top geoscience teacher.
The honor comes with a $6,000 prize from the AAPG Foundation to be split between Fujikawa and Arroyo High School – half of which is for the teacher’s personal use, the other half for the school to use under Fujikawa’s supervision.
She also will receive an expense-paid trip to this year’s SEG-AAPG International Meeting for Applied Geosciences and Energy, set Aug. 28-Sept. 2 in Houston, where she will be recognized and featured during the All-Convention Luncheon.
Supporting geoscience education – and promoting the legacy of how geoscience informs, inspires and provides a lifetime of awareness of the Earth’s dynamics – are at the core of the AAPG Foundation’s mission.
“Funding programs that promote and celebrate geoscience education is a major part of what we do at the AAPG Foundation,” said Foundation Chair Jim McGhay. “Today’s geoscience teachers are doing amazing work in their classrooms and inspiring the next generation of geoscientists, and we’re proud of our role in supporting their efforts.
“We’re proud and excited, too, to add Toshimi to the list of TOTY recipients,” he added. “She’s a wonderful example of a geoscience teacher who brings creative approaches and inspiring insights to her students each day.”
A Place of Importance
Fujikawa received a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California-Davis in 2007, then her geoscience teaching credentials and master’s degree in educational/instructional technology from California State University-East Bay.
Her first experience in teaching came as student teacher at Arroyo High School in 2016, and she’s been on staff at the school since June 2017.
The recent master’s degree reflects her intent “to make geology more accessible to all of my students by providing them with a variety of tools to deepen their understanding,” she said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic and schools going into distance learning, it has become even more imperative that teachers use technology to enhance students’ learning.
“I want to continue growing and improving in my teaching practices to give students a positive learning experience.”
Still, there’s nothing like the real thing – and when it comes to geology, Fujikawa loves – loves – the real thing.
“Students see in her an independent, curious, passionate scientist who is excited by discovery,” said Arroyo Assistant Principal Shelly D. Fields, “and totally jazzed about rocks.”
Hence, taking advantage of her California setting – and keying into her students’ awareness of their geological environment – is at the heart of her teaching focus.
And why not? That’s exactly how she first fell in love with geology.
“My students are surrounded by a wide range of fascinating tectonic activity and an abundance of natural resources,” she said. “Geology not only affects the environment that surrounds them, but also is paramount in understanding the natural resources that make the things they use in their everyday lives.”
In fact, Fujikawa’s love of geology started when she was a young student herself, on family vacations.
“I grew up visiting places like Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone during summer breaks,” she said, “(and) the more I visited Yosemite, the more I wanted to learn about the amazing formations and the processes that made the beautiful landscape.”
But her awareness of the impact and importance that geology has on everyday life came from growing up in the California Bay Area, near the seismically active San Andreas and Hayward faults.
“My first exposure to learning about plate tectonics happened in my sixth-grade class,” she said. “My teacher, Mrs. Johnston, took us on a field trip to the Oakland Hills and demonstrated plate tectonics using plexiglass covered in cake frosting and candy.
“That experience inspired me to continue learning about geology,” she said.
It also led to a teaching philosophy that strives to “provide students an opportunity to learn about Earth’s materials and processes in a hands-on, collaborative environment in order to have a broader view of the earth and the impact they have on their own lives,” she said.
“I believe that students should have engaging lessons with hands-on experiences,” she added. “Every unit starts with a phenomenon to connect concepts to events or objects that occur in the real world. Each concept that I teach has activities and labs to apply their knowledge, deepen their understanding and relate geologic concepts to their everyday lives.”
Course units include:
- Plate Tectonics.
- Minerals and Earth Materials: Geochemistry
- Igneous Environments and Rocks
- Sediments and Their Environments
- Metamorphism and Structural Geology
- Earthquakes and Earth’s Interior
- Climate Change
It’s a comprehensive class, taught with a creative and often very entertaining flair.
“Toshimi is passionate about geoscience … student-centered, focused on what her students need instructionally and emotionally,” Fields said.
“Toshimi is able to connect with kids and make their time learning geology a positive and transformative part of their school experience,” she added. “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
Q&A with Toshimi Fujikawa
By VERN STEFANIC, AAPG Foundation Communications
Toshimi Fujikawa, the AAPG Foundation’s Teacher of the Year for 2022, has been called “a living model for young women to be strong, smart and independent scientists and researchers.”
Strong praise, indeed, for a teacher still in the salad years of her career.
“Toshimi may not have the most years of experience,” said Arroyo High School assistant principal Shelly D. Fields, “but like the sedimentary rocks she studies, she is multilayered and rich in potential.”
And, according to both her peers and her students, a teacher who has made the study of geology “a positive and transformative part of the school experience.”
Some of her thoughts, in her own words (edited for length):
How did you develop your approach to teaching? And how did it become so identifiably an extension of your passion?
I always thought that learning science could be more fun and engaging with hands-on experience as well as with building good relationships with learners. I had teachers and professors that fostered a love of learning science. Not only did they make learning science more engaging, they also went out of their way to build relationships with their students. Seeing those examples led me to develop a similar approach to teaching.
What is unique about your teaching style/class?
My teaching style is built on forming close relationships with my students. I extend patience, empathy and grace to show that I truly care about who they are as young people. I demonstrate and show my enthusiasm for geology every single day. It helps a lot that I personally love the subject matter! I also incorporate my personal experiences with travel to geologically fascinating places into the lessons. Something that is unique to my class is that I have my students do partner/group labs for hands-on learning as often as possible. It is so important for students to learn about science from more than textbooks.
How are you able to make geology/geoscience compelling to your students?
I emphasize that geology affects their daily lives, whether it’s the natural resources that they use and consume daily, the earthquake hazards that they are at risk for by living in the California Bay Area, or the landforms that surround where they live and all the places they one day hope to travel to.
How do you structure your teaching focus to reach both geology/science novices and students who have a genuine interest in pursuing a career in the geosciences?
I start by teaching the basics of large-scale geology with plate tectonics, basic geochemistry and the rock cycle/types of rocks. Learning the foundations of geology reaches all of the students. As an extension of their learning, many of the units I teach involve a research project that gives them a choice on how and what they want to self-explore. Students are able to dig as deeply as they want with those projects. Giving students choice on what they want to study fosters self-efficacy and gives them ownership of what they learn.
Is there a student or a class situation that is particularly memorable?
There are too many memories to count of students and situations that stand out to me ... (But) one particular situation occurred this school year when my students were doing a three-day stream table lab right outside my classroom in the courtyard to model river erosion and deposition. Some of my most quiet and disengaged learners were happily getting their hands wet and dirty. Some of them even brought little Lego bricks and figures to engineer ways for human civilization to be protected from flooding. By the end of the lab, it felt more like I had taken them all to the beach to build sandcastles rather than learning about sedimentary processes. Many of my students wrote in their end-of-year reflection that this lab was one of the most fun things they did this school year.
What has it been like to teach in the era of COVID? Specifically, what adjustments – either content or structurally – have you made?
Teaching relies so much on face-to-face interactions and close proximity. When COVID forced schools to switch from in-person to distance learning online, I had to re-evaluate everything I ever taught in my geology class to keep students engaged through a screen.
I spent countless unpaid hours reworking my whole curriculum to hold their short attention spans and incorporate ways for them to do more independent work for asynchronous learning. I scoured the internet for fun yet content-specific videos, reworked my lectures to be shorter and follow a storyline progression, and redesigned my assessments to test their knowledge of connections and relationships rather than the memorization of facts that they could just look up the answers to on the internet easily.
It was difficult to form the close relationships with individual students that is so critical to how I teach, and it was more difficult to keep students engaged when they felt so hopeless about what was going on in the world around them. However, I made the extra effort to reach out to students and put on a positive attitude for learning.
Former students that I only ever had through distance learning approach me now in-person to tell me that my enthusiasm and care came across their screens. It means a lot to me that I was seen as a teacher that persevered through teaching through distance learning and never gave up on my students.
Why is teaching geology important at all?
Teaching geology to young students is an important part of understanding what goes on in the natural world. All of the major science disciplines are interconnected and equally important, and not teaching geology is doing students a disservice when they are learning science. Geology not only affects the environment that surrounds them, but also is paramount in understanding the natural resources that make the things they use in their everyday lives. People need to understand that their everyday objects are made from minerals and oil that were a product of geologic processes.
Young people will inherit the future world from us, and their understanding of the natural world and the environment will lead them to become better stewards of what this earth can provide for humanity.