California Educator Named AAPG Foundation's 2019 Teacher of the Year

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

Branch encourages students to learn about natural resources and the Earth’s processes with her pedagogical philosophy of “inquiry-based experience.” By incorporating geographic features and the environment that shaped their home state, students study “both the deposition of gold approximately 65 million years ago and the deposition of oil before the coast ranges existed. We also touch upon how important the San Andreas Fault is to the oil traps of our area,” she said. 

Branch obtained her Career Technical Education credential within the Energy, Environment and Utilities sector, after which she planned a CTE pathway in Environmental Resources and Sustainability, partnering with the AP biology teacher at her school. “We have aligned our curriculum with the Next Generation Science Standards, using sustainability and natural resources as our phenomenon.” In preparing her students for the future she said, “the idea behind this is for students to be career-ready within the sustainability and natural resources industry in our local area.”

LeeAnne McNulty, director of Institutional Grants at Allan Hancock College, describes Branch as “a model teacher.” McNulty says that Branch’s students “work in teams, get dirty, every student is involved, and learning becomes, at its essence, student-driven curiosity, exploration, team building, research oriented and designed in such a coordinated way that the standards are learned and reveal themselves as students test theories and learn through fluid projects.”

Branch has led student field trips to Death Valley and the Amazon rainforest. “This summer will be my fourth trip to the rainforest to teach about the natural resources of the Amazon River along with data collection techniques,” she said.

The AAPG Foundation 2019 Teacher of the Year, Laura Branch
The AAPG Foundation 2019 Teacher of the Year, Laura Branch

            Branch has strong support from her school’s administration team. “Laura continuously incorporates her life experiences into her lesson planning,” said Karen R. Rotondi, principal at Righetti High School. She describes Branch as “a twenty-year teacher, still giddy with excitement when sharing the wonders of our Earth with both students and staff …her enthusiasm for geology is contagious!” Rotondi goes on to say that Branch works “extremely hard to ensure that her students receive the best hands-on and relevant projects and units …Nothing but the best for her kids.”

Not only does she enrich her students’ knowledge and experience with field trips, Branch also creates opportunities for her students after graduation.  Rebecca Rehder Wingerden, science department chair at Ernest Righetti High School, said that Branch offers students opportunities to “earn environmental industry sector certificates, such as OSHA’s General Industry and HAZWOPER” and that she “works tirelessly with local industries to secure internships for her students, as well as with our local community colleges to provide cross-curricular credit.” 

Branch sees her teaching position as her “dream job.” She feels fortunate to teach subjects that she loves “… to explain about the natural resources, disasters of California and about the environment we live in … while working with industry partners to bring both hard and soft skills to my students. My greatest hope is that I have made a positive contribution to the world around us.”

The AAPG Foundation annually awards a K-12 teacher within the United States who exemplifies outstanding achievement in teaching Earth sciences with the TOTY award and a cash prize of $6,000 – half for Branch’s personal use and the other half for educational purposes to Righetti High School’s use under Branch’s supervision.

Branch will also receive an expense-paid trip to attend AAPG’s Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio in May to receive her award. 

Honorable mentions for the 2019 Teacher of the Year are awarded to Rebekah Kienenberger, an Earth science teacher at Arete Preparatory Academy in Gilbert, Ariz.,and Charles Schepke, who teaches Earth science at Roscommon High School in Roscommon, Mich. Each Honorable mention will receive a $500 cash prize and a geological highway map set.