Disney’s teacher awards
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High School Ecology Center
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Taste for Adventure
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.
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.
Burundi to Zambia, the Galapagos Islands to Grapevine, she
students with a love of nature.
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."
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
"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."
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
Dumpsite to sanctuary
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
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.
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,"
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 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.
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
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.