Lafayette Teacher Becomes Top Science Educator

Hissing cockroaches, largemouth bass swimming in a 300-gallon freshwater aquarium, a giant toad, salamanders, turtles and gerbils—to name only a few. It's not a wildlife reserve, but all teaching tools inside Joe Ruhl's biology classroom at Lafayette Jefferson High School in Tippecanoe County. Recently awarded the Shell National Science Teaching Award, Ruhl uses the creatures to spark students' interest in the study of all living things.

"I find myself using the 300 gallon aquarium a lot to teach all kinds of concepts: food chains, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis," says Ruhl. "These living things just make for an interesting learning environment, because biology is the study of living things—it just makes sense to have them in the room. They stimulate the students' interest and get them to ask questions, and asking questions is really the first step in doing science."

Interestingly, the aquarium—one of two in his classroom—became a fixture in his teaching space when he passed on new office furniture as part of a science department remodeling project, opting instead to use the money for the fish tank. A small sacrifice, says Ruhl, to make his classroom a captivating learning environment.

"My primary goal is to get students excited about biology—to pique their interest and show them how much fun science can be," says Ruhl. "I want to show them how fascinating and interesting it can be and get them to think 'Wow, maybe science is something I could get into.'" Listen

A 33-year teaching veteran, with 28 of those years spent teaching science at Lafayette Jeff, Ruhl had to leave his classroom to compose his emotions after the principal joined his first period class to announce he'd won the national award, which comes with a $10,000 prize. Given annually by the National Science Teaching Association, it's designed to recognize an outstanding science teacher in the country.

"The students were just so excited, congratulatory and genuinely thrilled with the whole thing," says Ruhl. "It just warmed my heart."

While Ruhl is unsure of what set him apart from other nominees, he strives to constantly hone his skills by leading science education workshops, working with Purdue University researchers in their laboratories and using a nontraditional teaching style in his classroom.

"I've never really had a teacher that teaches the way he does," says Fabian Leyva, a senior in Ruhl's human genetics class. "It's really hands-on, interactive and very interesting. I would say it's extremely successful; I wish more teachers would teach the way he does." Listen

Ruhl says it's especially rewarding when students who start his classes disliking science begin to enjoy the subject and even consider it as a future career. He believes all students—science-oriented or not— need an understanding and appreciation of the subject. Listen

"There are so many job opportunities and professions related to the life sciences, whether they're in medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, genetics or the food industry," says Ruhl. "Even people who aren't in life sciences-related careers are going to need at least a citizen's knowledge of biology and genetics to be wise and informed citizens and consumers."

Perhaps if every citizen could spend a day in Ruhl's classroom, surrounded by a plethora of living creatures with a passionate educator to teach about them, interest in science would grow—just as it has at Jefferson High School.

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