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From the Spring 2018 Edition of Discovery

Bringing the Universe to a Rural Utah Classroom
Bringing a Rural Utah Classroom to the Universe

Celebrated High School Science Teacher Debbie Morgan fosters integral connections

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan in her classroom at Utah’s South Sevier High School.

Photo courtesy Chase Christensen

Alum Deborah Stringham Morgan (’02 Geology) entered USU as a theatre arts major, but changed her major a number of times.

“I’d have a class with an interesting professor and think, ‘That’s what I want to do,” says Morgan, a science teacher at Monroe, Utah’s South Sevier High School and a veteran educator of 16 years.

It was a while before she found her way to USU’s Department of Geology, but she admits “theatre arts” is not so far from the expertise she draws on daily to teach 9th through 12th graders chemistry, physics, earth science and investigation science AND serve as advisor to the school’s STEM Club and school district technology coach.

“Sometimes you have to be a magician or an actor,” she laughs. “Creativity is at the heart of teaching.”

A class with Joel Pederson (“He was so enthusiastic”), now Geology department head, led Morgan to her ultimate major of choice and encouragement from advisor Don Fiesinger (“He was sooooo patient and supportive”) kept her at USU.

“At first, I didn’t excel in my studies,” Morgan says. “But Dr. Fiesinger stuck with me, always offering encouragement.”

By the time she was an upperclassman, Morgan was earning straight A’s and the experience taught her an important lesson she carried into her teaching career.

“Sometimes students don’t believe in themselves and, especially here in a rural community, many don’t have role models who’ve gone to college and succeeded academically,” she says. “Being able to inspire these kids, open their eyes to opportunities, build their confidence – that’s why I teach.”

Bringing the Universe to the Classroom

Monroe is located in rural south central Utah, with a population of about 2,250 people. Home to naturally occurring hot springs and travertine deposits, it’s roughly 180 miles south of Salt Lake City and sits on Highway 89 between Fishlake National Forest and Capitol Reef National Park.

“My husband, who’s originally from West Jordan, Utah, and I moved here about ten years ago to escape city life,” Morgan says. “Monroe is still too big for us, so we settled in nearby Burrville, which has a population of around 28.”

In 2017, an opportunity opened up for Morgan and her students to get involved as investigators in a real-world, scientific network. She jumped at the chance to enter the national “Bringing the Universe to America’s Classrooms” initiative coordinated by WGBH, Boston’s public television station, to serve as a teacher advisor for the Public Broadcasting System’s NASA-funded program.

To her surprise and delight, Morgan was among just 50 educators selected from a nationwide field of more than 650 applicants.

“This has been a fantastic opportunity for myself, but especially for my students,” she says. “Together, we’ve been studying authentic weather and climate data collected by NASA satellites that track the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems using models of global air and water circulation.”

In addition, Morgan and her students are reviewing the weather and climate modules created for the PBS Learning System and providing feedback on how to improve these learning tools for high school students around the world.

“What’s cool is we’ve seen PBS actually make our suggested changes to the program’s website,” she says. “It’s very empowering for my students, who feel like real scientists. They’re excited to contribute to a project that can make a big difference in how people learn about science.”

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan surrounded by her students at Utah’s South Sevier High School.

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan surrounded by her students at Utah’s South Sevier High School.

Photo courtesy Chase Christensen

Bringing Morgan’s Rural Utah Classroom to the Universe

Morgan’s students’ participation in the WBGH project reinforces something she’s already learned: Her students have a great deal to contribute to the scientific community and to the world. They just need opportunities to reach beyond barriers of distance and access. Technology and a worldwide Web provide a conduit but, fortunately for these students, they also have an enthusiastic teacher, who doesn’t hesitate to reach out for opportunities.

In addition to her teaching duties, Morgan leads an after-school STEM club, open to students in all grades that connects the young scholars with far-reaching national and international projects.

“We’re not a STEM Club that just sits back and watches what the rest of the world is doing,” she says. “Our students have so much to offer. They’re getting involved in projects that connect them with scientists and engineers around the nation and the world.”

And even, she adds, to outer space.

“Several of our students are participating in NASA’s ‘Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students (ExMASS)’ program, where they investigating the moon’s habitability and sustainable resources and figuring out what they’d need to take with them on a lunar visit,” Morgan says. “They’re mentored by a NASA scientist, with whom they meet regularly, via Skype.”

Two other students have been selected to participate with Morgan in the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program and will train at CalTech this summer, while other student are participating in national and international STEM competitions, she says.

“These kids come up with incredible ideas and we encourage them to get involved in projects, where they can pursue these ideas and participate in meaningful research,” Morgan says.

Teaching: To Go or Not to Go?

Just like anyone who enters the educational profession, the demands and challenges of teaching wear on Morgan. She shares her “ponderings,” as she calls them in her online blog, Let’s Get Technical, www.

“Some of my students were reading the various diplomas, plaques and certificates I display near my desk and one asked, ‘Why do you teach? You could go do real science, make a lot of money and not have to deal with us kids,” she says. “Without hesitation, I responded, ‘I teach because of you!”

Not that Morgan hasn’t had second thoughts. Twice, she admits, she’s “tried” to leave the teaching profession.

“I taught for five years at a large, suburban junior high and felt a little burnt out,” she recounts. “I was teaching 180 ninth graders, seven class periods a day, coaching track, advising a community service club, serving on a community council, had recently completed a master’s degree in geosciences with an emphasis on educational applications from Mississippi State University and a summer internship program with the GeoCorps America Program and feeling quite underappreciated.”

She and her husband wanted to move to a more rural community and, as it was mid-year with no teaching positions available, Morgan decided to accept a position as an environmental health scientist.

“I lasted a month,” she says. “I still cringe thinking of how awful I felt going into my new supervisor’s office to explain why I was resigning. But as I left his office, I felt a huge load had been lifted from my shoulders.”

It turns out her rural community had a sudden need for a middle school science teacher and Morgan was soon back in the classroom. Fast forward seven years and another opportunity opened up at a regional educational services office for a technology coach.

“I wanted to stay in the classroom but, once again, I was tired and no longer felt the passion for teaching I once had,” she says. “Still it was a very hard decision for me. With encouragement from my superintendent, I took the plunge.

Morgan says she lasted a year.

“Teachers are difficult to teach,” she explains. “Administrators are even more difficult to teach. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan’s students at South Sevier High School in Monroe, Utah.

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan’s students at South Sevier High School in Monroe, Utah.

Photo courtesy Debbie Morgan

Giving a Voice to Utah’s Students and Teachers

Morgan found her way back to the classroom and to her current position, where she says she loves “interacting with students and watching them grow.”

“I’m still learning every single day what it means to be a great teacher and I still have a long way to go,” she says. “But I’m optimistic and encouraged about the future of my profession.”

Part of that optimism stems from a new role Morgan took on in the past year. She’s among the first cohort of educators selected as Utah Teacher Fellows, a program sponsored by the Hope Street Group and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. The fellowship, supported by Gov. Gary Herbert, is designed to connect teachers with local and state policymakers to promote positive change in education.

“There’s so much controversy in public education and sometimes, as teachers, it feels as though we have no voice,” Morgan says. “This program gives us training and a platform to communicate with policymakers.”

She’s thrilled with the opportunity which, she says, “enables me to stay in the classroom, stay with my students, stay a teacher, but to also have a voice and be an advocate for my students and colleagues.”

The response from state administrators, legislators and the Governor’s office, Morgan says, “has been immensely positive.”

The teacher fellows have made two trips, so far, to Utah’s Capitol Hill and have had the opportunity to speak with many decision makers about what’s happening, on the ground, in Utah’s schools.

“The legislators, everyone, has been so welcoming,” Morgan says. “This is the link we’ve been missing.”

Utahns need to know, she says, “the challenges educators face and the incredible things teachers in our state are doing.”

“As Utah Teacher Fellows, we strive to help policymakers see the reality of their choices,” Morgan says. “Cutting funding to programs that foster teacher mentoring and professional development initiatives could have devastating effects on public education.”

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan’s students at South Sevier High School in Monroe, Utah

USU Geology alum Debbie Morgan’s students at South Sevier High School in Monroe, Utah

Photo courtesy Debbie Morgan

Professional Recognition at Regional, State, National Levels

This past fall, Morgan was recognized as one of four state finalists (one of two for the secondary science award) for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest teaching honor for K-12 STEM teachers bestowed by the United States government.

“I was so honored and humbled,” Morgan says. “This is such an exciting time to be a teacher.”

As a state finalist, Morgan is now under consideration for a national award, which would include a signed certificate from the President of the United States, a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, as well as a monetary award from the National Science Foundation. National finalists will be announced in Fall 2018.

In addition to teaching accolades, Morgan is garnering praise from her scientific peers, as well. She was recently named the 2018 Teacher of the Year (K-12) by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Along with a monetary award for her school and for herself, she will attend the national AAPG conference, and speak at an awards ceremony, this May in Salt Lake City.

“I’m astounded – this is like the academy awards for geologists,” she says. “I have the most amazing students, colleagues and parents and they’re all part of this honor.”

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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