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Interview with Laura Branch, 2019 Teacher of the Year Award Recipient

ACE2019 San Antonio, Texas

ACE2019 San Antonio, Texas

Summary

Vern Stefanic interviews Laura Branch, the 2019 AAPG Foundation's Teacher of the Year awardee, at the Annual Convention & Exhibition in San Antonio, Texas on May 22, 2019.

See also the 2019 Teacher of the Year award ceremony video.

Full Transcript

VERN STEFANIC: Hi, we're speaking today with Laura Branch, who was this year's AAPG foundation teacher of the year. Laura, oh my gosh, congratulations, first on the honor. It's very nice that you're here joining us. And tell us, where you're from and where you teach and what do you teach?

LAURA BRANCH: I'm from Santa Barbara, California, originally. And now, I live in Buellton, which is a little, small town. And I commute up to Santa Maria, California where I teach, and I've been teaching at Righetti High School for 20 years.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh my gosh, MBA. And by the way, in California, and in that actual location, geology is a huge part of your natural world already, whether it be in oil seeps or the outcrops or whatever, right?

LAURA BRANCH: It is totally a playground, yeah. The school that I teach at is in Orchid, and it's named after William Orchid who is an oil guy from Santa Paula, California. And so when I teach about geology and in my geology class and AP Environmental Science class we always go into about William Orchid and about the anticlines and synclines and the oil deposition in the area.

VERN STEFANIC: I'm going to come back to that.

LAURA BRANCH: OK.

VERN STEFANIC: But before we talk about that, a little bit about your past and your involvement in geology, because that sort of was the path that led you to the fact that you're teaching about all of this. And I've heard part of this story before, but I love hearing it. Could you share with us how your appreciation and love of geology began.

LAURA BRANCH: When I was a little girl, my parents didn't have very much money. And so we didn't get to fly off to Hawaii or go to Europe or anything. And so, they would literally pack us all up in the car, all five of us-- which got some battles-- I'm sure you can imagine. But, yeah, we would just go different places.

We would go up to Mammoth. We would go to the eastern Sierras. We would go to Ghost Towns.

We would go to Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon. And it just started really-- to me, I was going, wow, I love nature. I love being out here. And I really want to learn about how all of this area formed.

And so it kind of led me to going into Santa Barbara City College and their geology program out there, and starting to take these really, really cool geology classes.

VERN STEFANIC: If you don't mind, I just want to push just a little bit, because I think a lot of our viewers have the same kind of-- I remember seeing mountains for the first time, and going, I need -- more about this.

This kind of a strange question, maybe can you remember what it was, a moment that really crystallized for you this connection that you had. And by the way, can you talk about it in terms of what you felt then and what is an adult you now realized was happening.

So when I was 16, we were driving across the United States to New York to go visit my parents' friends or whoever, and I had always gone up every single year to Mammoth area and the Sierra Nevadas, which are huge. And so then, I would always learn that the Appalachian Mountains were like Mount Everest. And so we get there, and my dad's like, where is the mountains? Like, where are they?

And so that was the moment that I'm like, this is really, really weird. I thought these were supposed to be really big. But really, now, they're so old that they're all just these rolling hills. And I'm like, I gotta learn more about this. This is totally awesome stuff.

VERN STEFANIC: What a great story.

LAURA BRANCH: Yeah, we're like, there's nothing. Like, it's just like-- OK.

VERN STEFANIC: So that led you to do more research and to find out more about-- ah, that is so cool. I know your perhaps formal education started at, is it city college of Santa Barbara?

LAURA BRANCH: Yeah, Santa Barbara City College.

VERN STEFANIC: Could you talk a little bit about the instructors that you had there, what their program was like.

LAURA BRANCH: At Santa Barbara City College, you eat, sleep, and drink geology. So you just go on these five day field trips that go along with whatever you're learning in the class. And you might be sitting out on the San Andreas Fault for three hours.

And you're just like, wow, this is it. You are looking at the world renowned San Andreas Fault, and you're sitting on it learning about it. And then you get up and you have to walk around and look at the rocks and stuff like that.

And it was amazing. And so that was another big spark in my life going, wow, this is really, really cool. So it was like this Dr. Gray, he's really-- I think you mentioned that you know him.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

LAURA BRANCH: He is an awesome guy, and he's a plethora of knowledge. And so it was him and then Jen Schultz and Jeff Meyer and Erin O'Connor. And the whole department shuts down, and you just go out for five days.

Or they have the Eastern Sierra field trip, which is learning about-- its fire and ice, so glaciers and volcanoes. And then they also have a mining field trip, and they have the Colorado Plateau trip. They just have all these different types of trips, and they always take you out.

So if you're going to learn about faulting, you're going to be looking at it, and not just in that textbook. And it's just it's amazing. And so that is really what sparked me to want to go on.

VERN STEFANIC: Wow, and at the time, as your education continued, you were probably thinking-- correct me if I'm wrong-- in terms of a career as a geologist, maybe even petroleum geologist.

LAURA BRANCH: Yeah, I thought I was going to end up as a petroleum geologist. So by the time I transferred to San Diego State, that's what I was looking into. And then my very last senior year-- like, I had all the classes. I was going through the interview process down there and everything, meeting with people in the oil industry.

And then one teacher, Dr. Walawender, went, you know, teaching is a really great option. Some people should try to go into it. And I'm like, oh, I think I could be a really good teacher at this.

And so then I started researching it, and I'm like, you know what? This is really, really cool stuff, because now, I get to teach these kids so that they can have the spark and the interest in geology that I like, or environment, or whatever. And they can either take it and go on really cool field trips, or they can use it as a career goal.

VERN STEFANIC: Was it difficult for you to get into the spot, teaching what it is that you love to teach?

LAURA BRANCH: Ooh, that's really hard question.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, I thought about it before I ask it, but--

LAURA BRANCH: So I am not a very good test taker, so the hardest thing for me was the GRE because it was a master's program for the teaching credentials. So to pass that, and then also to pass all of the teaching tests. Because a lot of people just assume that as a teacher, becoming a teacher is just something to fall back on.

But for me, I really went into it going, I just passed these really hard tests, because I have to be ready to teach biology, chemistry, physics, and geology, not just geology, which is my favorite. And so I really had to learn how to study for those tests. I took a whole year to learn how to study for these tests and to pass these tests.

And then after that, it was just kind of all downhill from there. And got into one of the top credential programs and met great people. And in my interview, when I first got my job at Reghetti High School, they're like, so, what would you do if you had to plan a geology class.

And I'm like, oh, that's easy, here you go. And so during the interview, I would say exactly what I would want to do. And they're all, OK, you are going to get hired on to plan out this class. I'm all, oh, that's a dream job.

VERN STEFANIC: So tell us a little bit about-- now that you have the dream job-- what your approach is. I mean, obviously, based on other awards that you received, you are an award winning--

LAURA BRANCH: Yes.

VERN STEFANIC: Educator, not just from the AAPG Foundation, but you've got some other honors as well. Clearly, you're doing something right. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is that you're bringing to the classroom.

LAURA BRANCH: I think, as a teacher, it's a selfless job, and you don't get a lot of pats on the back because the kids in there, and they're armed and they love learning, but they don't necessarily always say thank you, if that makes any sense. And so I started writing for grants and awards and whatnot to help me realize and stretch myself to become a better teacher.

And it has paid off psychologically and emotionally, because I'm like, you know what? I am a really good successful, effective educator. And so it's more for me and my-- I don't know how to even say it, but for my own self-confidence, is to say, OK, I can now say that, oh, I'm stretching myself in ways that I have never tried. And I always try to make things better--

VERN STEFANIC: Right.

LAURA BRANCH: In my curriculum and then, in the classroom.

VERN STEFANIC: In teaching geology, what's the state of the student body out there? Do we find that people are interested in STEM, in general, but more specifically to your love to geology?

I would say that geology, as a science, pertains to every single kid. Whether they're going to go off and become a geologist or an environmentalist, or if they're just going to go and buy a house somewhere, it pertains to them. These kids now-- well, I just gave then the state rock of California. So they're like, oh, oh, I found the outcrop. Oh, I found an anticline I found a syncline. I totally get tar on my feet. I always wondered why it was there.

And so they have already experienced geology, and for me to bring it up and to bring them up in a level that they can really start asking the other questions is a really, really cool thing. And so they love it. They come to class every day just wanting to learn more.

VERN STEFANIC: You know, I was in-- and this now, we come back to something we talked about in the very beginning, which is the unique setting that your location. Talk a little bit about that, even more specifically. You mentioned tar. We know now why the tar, because there is tar on the beach and all over the place.

LAURA BRANCH: And it's naturally occurring, and they don't realize that. Like, yesterday, I went into this meeting and there was like misconceptions in science and stuff. And so a lot of people always say, oh, the tar in the beach is there because we have oil there, and it's totally not the right thing. Because it's actually there is the pack rock that usually keeps all the oil in is shattered because there's a bend along the San Andreas Fault.

And so once I explain this to the kids, it's like, oh, I get it. The tar is naturally occurring. And then, I go and say, OK, now go to La Brea Tar Pits and all these other different places. How did the Two Match Indians use it?

And we just kind of look at just oil throughout time in our area, because we are a very heavy agricultural town and also an oil town. And so it really pertains to their lives.

VERN STEFANIC: Is there no an awareness of or an appreciation for the need for sustainable energy as we go forward? And is that part of your class?

LAURA BRANCH: It is part of my class. It's more in my environmental science class. But we do talk about that a lot because when I talk about petroleum and all, just about energy in general, I kind of try to go a middle ground.

Because as a teacher, I don't want to tell them who to vote for. I don't want to tell them what to vote for. I want them to become little thinking individuals.

They can think for themselves, and they can make-- like, I'm going to give them all of the evidence that I can and all the scientific information, and they should be able to make their decisions based on that.

VERN STEFANIC: And the state of the student body in terms of are-- do we have students coming up who have that capability to reason and to think and to--

LAURA BRANCH: You definitely have a lot of students coming up that are-- yes.

VERN STEFANIC: OK, let me ask you like this. How does teaching change-- either the demands from the students or the demands on you on how to creatively teach it? How has it changed over your career in connecting with students?

LAURA BRANCH: I think cell phones are not so great in the hands of a 14-year-old. I think that they are very addictive. And I think that the upper level kids are definitely critical thinkers that are the next generation of our problem solvers.

Some of the other students that are very addicted to their cell phones and Fortnite, I think that they need to just kind of put that away and start learning how to read a book. Because they don't read anymore.

They just-- oh, I don't know this answer. And they don't want to problem solve. They just want to kind of go into Google and look it up. They're not problem solving right now.

VERN STEFANIC: So how do you break through to them?

LAURA BRANCH: Well, I tell them, first of all, either to put the cell phones away, obviously. Or I try to bring in, every once in a while, a project that they can use their technology with. Because technology is not going to go away, obviously.

But they also need to realize how to do data collection before-- like, I like to teach them geological practices and how to get data and look at rocks and minerals and whatever and just look at the outside just the old school way. And how to read a map. They are floored because I make them read a map and look at aqueduct systems in California.

And they're just like, why, we have GPS, we have Google Maps. And I'm like, because where I go, we're not going to be having this. We don't have Wi-Fi where I would go. And so then they literally have to learn how to read a map and plot earthquake data and stuff on an actual map, instead of using their phones. Because they're always on their phones. They don't need their phones in my 50 minute class.

VERN STEFANIC: Your life changed because of teachers and the awareness of geology. Have you seen that happening in any of your students?

LAURA BRANCH: Yes, I've had them come back and want to be my student teacher. So yeah. And then I was on a field trip a few years ago to look at something called an ophiolite field just on this Air Force Base. And then who was our little guide-- one of my students. Not the little guide, but you know.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

LAURA BRANCH: She was the person that was guiding as the geologist. I was like, oh my gosh. There you are. That's amazing.

And she said, yeah, I was your class. And so I'm like, OK, that's awesome.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh.

LAURA BRANCH: So--

VERN STEFANIC: Congratulations.

LAURA BRANCH: Feels like it's a full circle.

VERN STEFANIC: Congratulations on that. For a teacher, that's probably the greatest thing that you can find.

LAURA BRANCH: It's really awesome.

VERN STEFANIC: Let me just ask you just one final question. And that is about your aspirations and your goals and what you would like to do. You've achieved much since you were crammed into a car driving across the country.

LAURA BRANCH: Yes.

VERN STEFANIC: What horizons are there still for you? Where would you like to go?

LAURA BRANCH: I wanted to get my geology class to be considered a UC approved, like, science-- just that way is the same as chemistry. So I did that, so that was good. And then, I wanted it to become a concurrent class, so the kids got college credit for it.

So I finally did that. And now my aspirations, I think, are I'm working with the Educator Academy in the Amazon. It's a program for teachers. And I am working on writing the curriculum for the high school cohort.

And I'm bringing in the geoscience education aspects and the natural resources of the Amazon River. And I think that that's a pretty important piece of work. It's not only using sustainability, but also bringing in how the river and that whole system over there is-- how to bring that into the classroom, so that kids can be kind of knowledgeable about this.

And so I've been working hard on this. It's been a big push type of thing. And I created an environmental pathway for our kids too, so that hopefully they can be citizen scientists and know what's out there as far as science is concerned.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah, I love that. So the combination of science plus the environment-- I think our president this year has talked about those in terms of sustainable development, is what we're talking about. So that becomes part of your teaching as well.

LAURA BRANCH: Yes. I'm trying to get the whole shebang in so that the kids can have a really good outlook on-- you know, well, they're our next voters. But they're also our next generation on what to do with our environment. And so we need to educate them because if I don't do it, who else is-- right?

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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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