Hellgate science teacher honored, hopes his students learn to wonder at their world

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Hellgate science teacher honored, hopes his students learn to wonder at their world

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Read the original story at in the Missoulian's June 9. 2016 issue. 

Rob Jensen has studied rare monkeys in Morocco, observed seals in Antarctica, contracted malaria while serving the Peace Corps in Cameroon and taught teachers about science-based inquiry in China. And that’s just a few of the highlights of his resume.

A science teacher at Hellgate High School for the past 15 years, Jensen was recently named the 2016 Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year by the National Association of Biology Teachers. The candidates for the award are judged on their teaching ability and experience, cooperativeness in the school and community and their relationships with students.

Jensen said he doesn’t know who nominated him.

“I think maybe it’s because I do a variety of things,” he said. “Learning can be in the classroom. But it can also be outside. I can just be down here with my 7:30 to 3:40 contract hours. Or you can get out and do some fun stuff and on your own. There’s real opportunities out there for teachers if you’re willing to look and you’re flexible. That’s kind of the key.”

Jensen said he tries to change things up for his kids every year. He often takes them to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville, and his students have won first place at the state science fair for three out of the past four years.

“That’s all them,” he said. “They’re doing the research.”

He has three different undergrad degrees from the University of Montana: Wildlife ecology, forest resources management and zoology. He also has a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Minnesota, and conducted dissertation research on wolves at the University of Idaho. He served as a wildlife biologist in the Peace Corps for the governments of Cameroon and Morocco, and taught inner-city youth in the San Francisco Bay area for several years. He studied Japanese education through a Fulbright Memorial Fund award and has trained teachers in Russia through a U.S. State Department program. He’s also co-led at least 10 field science courses with the local nonprofit Ecology Project International.

Scott Pankratz, the executive director of EPI, said Jensen has been an invaluable addition to the team.

"I have seen his commitment to teaching biology in innovative ways, in particular in his ability to get his students outside the classroom,” Pankratz said.

He cited several trips Jensen has taken students on through Ecology Project International: experiential field science courses seven times to Costa Rica studying leatherback sea turtles; two to Baja, Mexico, to explore marine ecology; and once to the Galapagos Islands to study giant tortoises and evolution.

Jensen also has a trip to Baja scheduled with EPI for February 2017. 

The trips show Jensen engages students in innovative ways, Pankratz said.

"His students work side by side with researchers doing science in the field, which inspires and empowers them to be leaders in science and conservation," Pankratz said.

Jensen and his students have raised more than $35,000 for bed nets to prevent malaria in developing countries.

“I had malaria, so it’s one of those things that you bring something personal to it,” he said.

Andy Vale, one of Jensen's former students at Hellgate, attended two EPI courses and is now a nurse at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

"Rob is a very intelligent and very fair teacher," Vale recalled. "He expects a lot of himself and also others. That makes him a very strong role model."

Vale remembers Jensen's lessons about the natural world like planetary syzygy – the necessary condition for an eclipse – as well as jungle ecology and navigation using the Southern Cross constellation. Vale also mentioned Jensen's outdoor etiquette, travel smarts and leadership, which he taught by example.

"He's someone that I keep in touch with as a friend now because of what he taught me," Vale said.

Jensen said he gets a thrill out of teaching kids, even though he acknowledges that he has a reputation as being demanding.

“Having them ponder, just wonder,” he said. “Just to kind of have them experience things or think about things in a new way that they haven’t before. Introducing them to things they haven’t seen before."

Many students who enter his classes don't like science – until they learn about all the different disciplines, from biology to chemistry and others, he said.

After they learn that, "Many have told me that they’re actually either more interested in science or interested in pursuing a career in science," he said. "And that’s really gratifying.”