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A Taste for Adventure by Cathy Cashio
Fall 2003      


story extras

Meeting Jane Goodall


web links

Disney’s teacher awards

Galapagos Islands cyber field trip

Grapevine High School Ecology Center

other features

For the Fun of the Games

Cheering on the Green and White

Q: Who is the Most Straightforward Host on TV Today?

A Taste for Adventure


When Sherri Steward-Ganz ('74) enters her classroom, it becomes a stage. Skulls on shelves peer over posters of Gandhi and Korea. Fish dart. Birds chirp. Students shuffle — gathering for a great adventure.

An environmental science teacher at Grapevine High School, Steward-Ganz is a humanitarian and world-class researcher.

Her adventures read like an ecological Indiana Jones travel book. She's studied chimps in Africa, orangutans in Borneo and endangered leatherback sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

From Burundi to Zambia, the Galapagos Islands to Grapevine, she spreads goodwill and inspires students with a love of nature.

The great outdoors

Primatologist Jane Goodall is her mentor. Actor Alan Alda is her fellow explorer. But her first hero was her father, William Steward.

"As a child, I saw my father struggle with a disability from a Korean War injury," Steward-Ganz says. "At an early age, I understood life is short."

  Steward-Ganz and children

On a 1998 trip to Africa, Grapevine High School science teacher Sherri Steward-Ganz “high fives” Bauleni village children in Zambia. The real-world experiences she’s shared with her students helped earn her this year’s Disney Outstanding American High School Teacher award.


When they were children, she and her brother and sister escaped into the great outdoors for diversion.

"We loved to explore the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains," she says. "We crawled through a drain pipe under eight lanes of traffic to reach those mountains."

Their mother, Lorene, had a clue one of her children would become a scientist when they appropriated the family's bathtub to hold 20 big bullfrogs hostage.

"My mother was surprised by the bullfrogs," says Steward-Ganz. "The frogs were surprised by my mother. They leaped out of the tub, trying to escape."

Like the frogs, Steward-Ganz says she and her siblings could never be confined.

"If I see a mountain, I'm going to climb it," she says. (She climbed Kilimanjaro in 1998.) "If I have a dream, I'm going to make it real."

A dream begins

She was 10 years old when she picked up a National Geographic magazine and discovered Jane Goodall.

"I saw this beautiful blond lady— a frail-looking Englishwoman who went to the wilds of Africa to pursue her dreams. She studied chimps and showed us a glimpse of some of our nearest relatives," she says.

The experience encouraged Steward-Ganz to follow the kind of path Goodall had chosen. She knew she would study animals and go to exotic places one day.

Along the way she ran track at North Texas and says kinesiology professor Robert Patton and biology professors James "Tad" Lott and Ken Stewart inspired her.

"These professors opened the doors of biology to me, and I loved it," she says. "I still love track and running, but it doesn't hold the answers for me that the natural sciences do."

As a teacher in Grapevine, Steward-Ganz has been inspiring students of her own and uses the high school as a base camp for her worldwide studies.

Dumpsite to sanctuary

One of her most memorable projects began after she attended a presentation Goodall was giving in Fort Worth — and left inspired to create an environmental curriculum and outdoor learning center at the school.

She and her students transformed a nearby dumpsite into the Grapevine High School Ecology Center, a place for students, teachers and community members to participate in experiments, animal rehabilitation and other activities. A year after the cleanup started, Goodall was on hand to help dedicate the four-acre open-air sanctuary.

The eco-lab's pond, stream, nature trail and wildflower meadows are the perfect settings for an aviary, weather station and wildlife refuge.

A Veterans' Memorial Garden also graces the property. Steward-Ganz's father and her brother, Michael Steward, who is also a war veteran, helped dedicate the memorial.

"Respect for our legacy — humanity and nature — is the most important thing to teach a child," Steward-Ganz says.

The influence of the center has reached far beyond Grapevine.

Inspired by Goodall's presentation at its dedication, GHS students helped her raise funds for an endangered primate sanctuary in Bujumbura, Burundi, in 1991-92.

Teaching travels

Former GHS student Mandy Williams, who also attended UNT, says she learned the importance of conservation, wildlife and humanitarian causes while working with Steward-Ganz at the center.

"Sherri teaches her students by sharing real-world experiences," says Williams.

Steward-Ganz and children
Steward-Ganz visits with Zambian children in a remote village.

Instead of learning about Africa entirely from a book, students view photos from her travels. Bright, smiling faces grace every shot of the Bauleni Primary School in Lusaka, Zambia. The school serves 2,000 impoverished students. Some walk 10 miles to school, have no supplies and have inadequate drinking water.

From 1995 to 1998, GHS students raised enough money to build a water well for Lusaka.

"I was studying global water quality when I saw Sherri's photos of the school," says Williams. "The signs of cholera made me see how good I have it here.

"It made me ask questions about what I could do to help."

Williams got the opportunity to travel herself when she and Steward-Ganz joined the Public Broadcasting System and host Alan Alda in 1999 to create a cyber field trip in the Galapagos Islands.

As Scientific American Frontiers school program ambassadors, they broadcast live for seven days to teachers and students around the world. They answered kids' questions about everything from a marine iguana's life to soil composition.

"It was a thrill to teach on the Internet and work with other scientists and Alan Alda," says Steward-Ganz.

Although Alda is most famous for his portrayal of a doctor in Korea on the television program M*A*S*H, Steward-Ganz says he's a scientist at heart and a fellow adventurer.

Real heroes

Despite all her adventures and achievements, Steward-Ganz doesn't claim to be the hero of her own story. She says her students are her heroes.

"I'm so proud of them," she says. "They undertook a monumental task of creating an eco-lab on a dumpsite. They gave up their allowances and worked at fast-food restaurants to build a water well, a chimp sanctuary and a memorial garden."

Steward-Ganz hoped that working on these projects would also help students face their own challenges.

"Nature can be a healer for everything that hurts," she says.

Boanna Owens, a former GHS student, agrees.

"Thanks to Sherri, I've overcome some overwhelming personal battles and all my dreams seem to be at my fingertips," she says. "I've faced tragedies in my family and recently overcame my own eating disorder."

Owens says Steward-Ganz not only influenced her in the classroom, but she also stood by her during the tough times.

"She gave me knowledge, confidence and a desire to reach the highest ambition I had ever imagined," Owens says.

That ambition led her to the jungles of Africa to work as an education coordinator for Roots and Shoots-Africa, the Goodall Institute's environmental and humanitarian program for young people.

"With Sherri's guidance," says Owens, "I've encouraged African children to pursue their dreams, helped kids in Europe tackle eating disorders, educated youth on wildlife and environmental issues and, most importantly, made changes in my own life."

Curiosity about the natural world not only shaped the life of Steward-Ganz but the lives of everyone she touches. In August, new students entered her classroom in Grapevine, and their world will never be the same.

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