Sabrina Ewald is the AAPG Foundation Teacher of the Year


You could call it destiny – Sabrina Ewald’s family history, after all, is dominated by those who either worked in the oil industry or were teachers.

“My father worked at an oil refinery, my uncle had a career in oil exploration and extraction, and even my grandmother worked on an offshore oil platform,” she said. “My mother was a teacher, and I had many family members who were teachers at all levels of academia.”

Add in frequent family trips spent hiking in the Ozarks and Rocky Mountain National Park – plus her own love of collecting rocks and minerals.

“These experiences shaped my plan for the future, and I always had two ideas of what I wanted to do with my life – geologist or teacher,” she said.

Guess what won out?

Trick question. The immediate answer is “both”: Ewald has been a high school science teacher for her entire career – and for the past 16 years for the Frisco (Texas) Independent School District, bringing science and, specifically, geology and energy education to high school students in Clinton and Denton counties, covering Frisco, McKinney, Plano and Little Elm, Texas.

But the winner in the bigger picture is not just her, and not even just her students. “What” is winning is best described as perhaps the entire contemporary initiative to bring via the ripple effect a deeper and more complete understanding of energy to the entire world.

Ewald’s teaching method and purpose is designed specifically to help students “have a better understanding of why fossil fuels are so imperative and so important to the economies all over the world” – and to help them be informed and energy-aware when, as adults, they make decisions.

For her passionate, comprehensive and experience-driven efforts – and for being exceptionally creative in a difficult year of pandemic-forced virtual learning – Sabrina Ewald is this year’s AAPG Foundation Teacher of the Year.

“I am beyond humbled and honored to be selected for doing what I love most, teaching Earth science and helping students make real-world connections by engaging in handson learning,” Ewald said when notified of the award. “I am fortunate to teach about what I am most passionate”

“It is a blessing to be recognized for my work in the classroom in helping students to see the value and importance of geology,” she added.

Preparing for Tomorrow’s Challenges

Having the perfect family background to help her prepare for a career that includes teaching and geology is a tip of the hat to her parents. The excellence that she brings to the job, however, is all hers.

Several factors are considered for awarding any teaching honor, but TOTY recipients are typically recognized for at least two important factors: what they teach, and how they teach it.

Ewald’s Energy Unit Portfolio, then, is an online piece of geoscience education art – a creative yet practical and engaging learning experience that lets students learn at their own pace, including opportunities to make conclusions and personal observations about the material they just studied.

Her goal: For all students to ultimately create the best energy plan for the city of Frisco, Texas (home for many of the students), based on what they learn in the units about the energy industry – considering personal needs, society’s needs, economic realities and environmental concerns as factors in their decisions.

To help them prepare their recommendations Ewald provides curriculum that is both entertaining as well as educational, dealing with:

  • Mining (How much land is needed to sustain your lifestyle? Other than food, can you name one thing in the room that isn’t connected to mining?)
  • Energy Resources and Production (How much energy is needed for you to take a shower?)
  • Fossil Fuels and Production (What country is producing what? What country is consuming what?)
  • Oil Production Methods (Comparisons galore – like, how much energy is needed to operate an electric car versus an internal combustible engine car? And … frac’ing?)
  • Nuclear Energy (What are the pros and cons?)
  • Renewable Energy (What? There might be environmental impacts here, too?)

It proved to be not just educational, but an eye-opener for all.

Before taking the course, “they didn’t have a whole lot of solid information or knowledge about any of this,” Ewald said, despite being residents of a region associated with oil production.

“I would say 90 percent of them (students) admitted that their opinion changed dramatically about fossil fuels,” Ewald said, especially in considering “the balance of moving forward (toward renewables) … it’s going to be a slow transition, and one that they still support, but they have a better understanding of why fossil fuels are so imperative and so important to the economies all over the world.”

The Teacher Gets Taught

Ewald’s approach to geoscience education for her entire career has been “hands-on engagement,” trusting that students both comprehend and also retain information faster and longer when they are exposed to that learning experience.

Then came the 2020 pandemic.

“When virtual learning became our reality,” she recalled, “the challenge pushed me into new and scary territory. I re-evaluated my teaching practices to find innovative ways to design activities that would still allow students to be in charge of their learning and be engaging.”

It wasn’t easy.

“It has taken every ounce of my experience in the classroom to adapt to our new reality in education,” she said of the challenge, but added “I am passionate about the subjects I teach, and that is what drives me to continuously improve and push myself out of my comfort zone so I can evolve my classroom practices.”

First, she spent hours learning how to implement new online tools and programs. Second, she spent hours more converting her lessons to the new virtual platforms.

“With these new skills and programs, I was able to convert many of my activities in our natural resources and energy production unit to virtual activities,” she said.

Next, she found resources that were current, creative and content-driven.

Participating in a variety of teacher field experiences helped, including mining workshops and the Geology Camp for Teachers with Texas A&M. (“I developed a deeper understanding of geology, more so than from some of my courses in college,” she said.)

Also, last July she participated in a fiveday workshop with the University of Texas’ Petroleum Technology and Science Institute – an in-depth look at petroleum engineering, the global energy market and current technologies used in oil production and energy extraction.

It proved to be relevant information for today’s high school students whose insight into energy is largely gleaned from political sources.

“The advanced technologies work to minimize environmental damage and the instructors addressed the integrating of renewables with existing fossil fuel use,” she said. “Once again, I was able to enhance my knowledge and comprehension of fossil fuels, and I have been using these resources to create new virtual, learner-centered assignments.

“All of these efforts reflect back on my philosophical approach to teaching,” she said: “Being the best teacher I can for my students and giving them a caring and engaging educational experience by delivering studentcentered inquiry and investigations.”

Foundation,PROWESS,Teacher of the Year Award