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Laura Branch receives the 2019 Teacher of the Year Award

ACE2019 San Antonio, Texas

ACE2019 San Antonio, Texas


Laura Branch receives AAPG Foundation's Teacher of the Year Award at the Annual Convention & Exhibition in San Antonio, Texas on May 19, 2019.

See also the interview with Laura Branch video.

Full Transcript

JIM GIBBS: It's, indeed, an honor for me and a privilege to be able to be with you today and spend this brief time. This is one of my favorite duties as Chairman of the AAPG Foundation, something that gives me enormous pleasure. I have the privilege of introducing to you a very special person who has been named this year's AAPG Foundation Teacher of the Year.

As you know, the AAPG Foundation annually rewards teaching excellence through our Teacher of the Year Initiative, which recognizes a K through 12 teacher within the United States who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the field of geoscience education. Geoscience education is enormously important to the AAPG Foundation. It's really a big part of our mission, and I know it's why a lot of you support the foundation with your gifts and your contributions.

This year our finalists were selected from not only those who have already won Teacher of the Year Awards by their respective sections, but also included at large nominations from around the country. And that meant the competition for this year's awards was intense and at a very high level.

The winner of our top prize receives a $6,000 award from the foundation, a prize that is divided evenly with $3,000 going to the teacher's school for educational purposes that are administered under his or her supervision and then $3,000 for the winning teacher's personal use.

The winner also gets an expense paid trip to two to receive the award, and that moment is about to occur. Joining the ranks of the AAPG's Foundation Teacher of the Year is Laura Branch, a geologist who is now a science and AP environmental science geology teacher at Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria, California.

Laura received an associate degree in geology from Santa Barbara City College. And by the way, they have a great program there. They have been inspiring geologists in giving them their first steps towards a profession for decades, and a bachelors degree in geology from San Diego State University in 1996. She later received a master's degree in education with an emphasis in teaching from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

I'll let her talk a little about her journey from geology student to educator, but I can tell you that her love of geology started as a young girl when her family visited such places as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mount Shasta. Geology became her first love, and that love continues to this day. But teaching and helping young students to experience the same level of geology and here soon became an equal passion for her as a professional and her creative and inspiring talents that have brought her to this moment.

Her peers describe her as being the most passionate, driven, and motivated teacher they have ever met, and they praise her for continuously incorporating her geologic life into her lesson planning. She travels frequently, bringing back to her students new stories of adventures, newfound knowledge, in rocks, rocks, rocks.

She routinely and creatively encourages students to learn about natural resources and the Earth's processes with her philosophy of inquiry-based experience. By incorporating geological features and the environment that shaped her home State, students that study both the deposition of gold and placement, approximately 65 million years ago, and the deposition of oil before the coast ranges existed and the importance of the San Andreas fault to the oil traps of their area.

She's also praised as a consummate team player, tirelessly lending her time and expertise to improve science education throughout the entire school district. She has contributed to the development of multiple curriculum maps and countless science lessons, all of which she shares. Maybe it's because she gets to teach about geology, a subject she loves. Maybe it's because her ability to connect with students is inspiring to them as it is to her peers.

Whatever the reason, the fact is she is an award-winning teacher who is making geology come alive for a new generation of potential geoscientists, a geologic Renaissance woman, if you will, combining her love of the Earth with an unending passion for education, and we couldn't be more proud to introduce her to you today.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking the 2019 AAPG Foundation Teacher of the Year, Laura Branch. Laura. Good to see you. Thank you.

LAURA BRANCH: Thank you.

JIM GIBBS: Take some pictures.

LAURA BRANCH: Looking around the room here, this is the biggest class size that I've ever had to work with, and it's large even by California's standards, which are usually averaging around 32 students per science classroom. And I think I might be about 360 students more than I'm used to here, so hopefully, this goes well.

Anyways, looking around the room this afternoon, I'm trying to decide how long I'm going to be speaking since a wise teacher named Bob Tierney once told me that the time that a person can truly concentrate is actually have their age in minutes. Does this mean I have a normal seven minutes or less that I have with my freshman general science class, or does that mean that I have the eight minutes that I usually have with my junior-level geology class?

Or do you think that I can get a whopping 25 minutes before I lose your focus and all of you just get up and walk away and go get another drink? I don't know if anybody here is part of the Facebook geologist drinking beer page, but anyways.

I want to give a big thank you to everyone here and to the AAPG Teacher of the Year Foundation and the Selection Committee for all the support for my getting this award and for your support of geoscience education. I also want to give a big shout out to Audrey-- is she out-- there she is-- because she's had to field all of my emails since March, and I've had a lot of them.

Geoscience education is really important, whether it's for petroleum geology, environmental geology, climate change, or even for a student to figure out where the best place to live is during graduation. And my first slide here is actually my geologic map that I have in my classroom that the district actually wants to take down to put a giant screen TV. But it has all of the earthquakes in the conterminous United States, and I had some little people in there, but they didn't show up.

But I always tell my students to pick their disaster, whether you want to go earthquakes where we live or tornadoes, which I think somebody at my table was under tornado watch in Oklahoma, or flooding, or nor'easters. And in seriously, where I teach in Santa Maria California, we have this housing complex called the River Homes.

And the reason is because the houses are literally built in the river, and the kids are always shocked to hear about this, and it's kind of fun to watch them contemplate about liquefaction issues due to earthquakes since we live along the bench portion of the San Andreas fault. So they always run to me if we have a little earthquake. Oh, my gosh, liquefaction.

Anyways, my passion for geology actually started at an early age, so there I am. And my parents didn't have a lot of money to take us on luxurious field trips, so they packed up us five kids in the car, and we'd drive across the United States, whether it would be Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Mesa Verde or Colorado Plateau, Mount St. Helens. And my favorite place would be the eastern Sierra Nevadas and mammoth area.

And we actually didn't see very much in Texas, and so I was really, really glad to go on Tom's following the water trip yesterday. I don't know if Tom's in the room today, but it was awesome. And at Santa Barbara City College, I finally took my first geology class because the guys in the department were really, really cute, and because we got to go and cool field trips. It was mostly the cool field trips.

But little did I know that 20 years later, I would still be hooked. There's nothing better than sitting on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and learning about the gold mining there or learning about the Sierra Pelona shifts along the San Andreas fault. So they would take us everywhere.

And I can say that I'm freaked out by height, so there is something better than going out on open oil derrick that you guys all do in high winds. It's been there, done that, and don't want to do that one again. And I'm glad that I didn't have to use the Whitaker. Do you guys-- OK.

The best thing about all these experiences is that I get to bring them back to the classroom and share my passion with my students. Yes, I still break for road cuts, and I really did get to see a great white shark suddenly attack and eat a sea otter while looking at an ophiolite field. It was amazing, and the teacher made us all get back into the van because nobody would look at the ophiolite field anymore. So it was like get back in the van.

Anyways, as a teacher, my job is to get the students to be college and career ready so they have the skills and the passion to work for industry partners like you. How do I accomplish this? By sparking their interest in science. And over the past 20 years, I've worked to get geoscience to be a mainstream science. And my bucket list has always included getting my geology course to weigh the same as a chemistry class as far as our UC system was concerned and also gaining concurrent enrollment in our local community college. And finally, this year I got to cross those off my list. I actually heard about it on Thursday about the concurrence. So I was really, really excited. Thank you.

And as you can tell just like these little kids in Peru that perseverance is one of my strengths. And yes, she has a turtle as a car for her transformer. That is kind of funny. I was like, wow, that's pretty-- and she was just pushing it across the floor. And those boys are actually boating across the mile-wide Amazon River to get to school, and they made the canoe, so yeah.

So what is the key to being an effective teacher? Having a sense of humor in the classroom. And the best advice that I was ever given for teaching came from my advisor, Dr. Lynnette Cavazos, at UC Santa Barbara. She said, the moment that you lose your sense of humor is the moment that you need to find a new career. So based on these pictures right here, you can tell that I've had some pretty hilarious days, and yes, it was stinky. And I think one of them actually did barf doing the L palette.

So what's next? As an educator, I've always tried to stretch myself and take on challenges. A few years ago, I decided I didn't know much about ecosystems in the environment, which is pretty important when I was planning my environmental pathway at my school.

So I found myself on a plane to do just that in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. This is how I met the educator Academy of the Amazon rainforest Director and this Amazon Academy is for teachers to learn about rainforest, global climate change, and agro sustainability.

It was an awesome experience and life changing. And it was a way that I was able to get my kids to do something called citizen science projects and learn about data collection and analysis techniques, which is going to help when they go off and work for all of you.

So based on this trip, I've worked with Maijuna community. I've met the Bug Chicks. If you don't know who they are, you should totally look them up because they're really, really funny, and I eat a termite, actually three of them, and they're surprisingly minty. And I accidentally wound up in the advanced birding boat with the author of the book, Birds of Peru, so there we are. And by the way, I still hate birds. I really like rocks. I don't really like birds.

And throughout this whole project though, even though it's inspirational and it's awe inspiring, I found that the program was actually lacking in two things, natural resources and geosciences education. And so this is how I ended up being their cohort leader for the high school teachers in the community, or in the program, and on their Advisory Council for the Morpho Institute that they actually just started up. So I thought that was pretty cool, and it's really hot in the Amazon, so my colleague would be mortified that I put that picture in there, but I was hot.

So teaching geology is my passion and my legacy, and my other passion is my family. And as most of you who are also rock lickers know that your friends and family have probably had to move rocks from the field to the front doorstep. And my family had to also endure not only moving those rocks, but also endured about lessons on turbidite sequence in clastic dykes when they just want to look at the normal scenery like a normal person. But no, we have to stop the car, and they're like we don't want to go in Branch's car anymore.

Anyways, and I want to give a special thanks to my husband, Brian, so he's my plus one for there and because without him I would not be where I am today. And he has always supported me on my endeavors wherever they may be and he has had to hang out with teachers in Hawaii and in the rainforest. And I think that if you ever talked to him, he got bit by a nocturnal wasp, and it was quite the experience. We were all laughing in the boat, but he wasn't.

And also he's had to go to some boring teacher conventions too. And he even helped me, along with our kids, to schlep one of your swag bag prizes today, which is actually our State rock of serpentinite. And he's actually begging you to please take them all home because he doesn't want to have another incident with TSA like the time that he accidentally brought five kilos of Peruvian salt in his carry on, and he got pushed aside. And I got pushed aside the other side, and I think he got drug tested a lot. So anyways, you can ask him about it. We were there for a while.

Speaking of swag bags though, if you're anything like my students, someone has already likely opened the dinosaur swag bag that's on your table. And if not, you can go ahead and open them now. There should be one at everybody's table. And I like to bring science to the classroom, and so I did the same for you. And my poor kids had to do this really big STEM project with them.

So what we did is my students created 1 to 40 scale classrooms to see if they could take refuge from a charging dinosaur. We then created 1 to 40 scale models of ourselves, complete with crazy geology puns. And I took out the ones that were about cleavage because I was like, no, you guys, this is not going. There were a lot of them.

Anyways, a STEM project at its finest, and everyone at your table gets to take home one of my students, so there you go. And I think if they were one of the language learners and it says on the back this was a language learner or this was a resource student. And you also get to take home a dinosaur eraser, so don't eat them-- they're little dinosaurs-- a dinosaur pencil, a tattoo, and a sticker. Don't fight amongst yourselves. But whoever touched the swag bag first gets to keep the dinosaur pen. My kids love dinosaurs.

So yeah. And the person at your table-- and you guys can all figure this out, because I know in my class who has the shortest attention span. But whoever has the shortest attention span gets to keep the egg dinosaur grow pet. And whoever you determine at your table is the wisest or has the longest attention span, doesn't really mean that they're the oldest, but the wisest, you get to keep the serpentinite because seriously, my husband does not want to take them home.

So thank you, again, for all of your support, and thank you.

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In the News

Explorer Emphasis Article

Laura Branch teaches high school science courses and is one of only a few credentialed Earth science teachers in Santa Barbara County and has the only upper-level high school geology class in the county. As a geoscience instructor, Branch is able to teach her students about the petroleum system and the seepage of oil and heavy oil in the coastal area.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Explorer Foundation Update

The AAPG Foundation is proud to announce the recipient of the 2019 Teacher of the Year award, Laura Branch. Branch teaches AP environmental science, geology and general science classes at Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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