April 2011 Issue
March 31, 2011

Teacher of the Year encourages 'outside the box' thinking in earth science

Author: Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Jeff Peneston works with Kaitlin Aiello as she drills into a tree to collect a core sample during a winter Expedition Earth Science field camp at Camp Talooli, in Pennellville. Photo by Lauren Long.

A massive wave rises up from the Antarctic waters, cascades over the side of the ship and engulfs Jeff Peneston and his video camera in an icy blast. Peneston lets out a triumphant whoop as the frigid wave subsides. Still standing, he whoops again.

Luckily, the 2011 New York State Teacher of the Year was tied fast to the ship and the camera was tied fast to Peneston. As he documented the PolarTREC excursion through the Drake Passage in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica, Peneston's students nearly 9,000 miles away could see it in near real-time.

Whether in his earth science classroom at the Liverpool High School Annex, on an Expedition Earth Science weekend trip, at summer camp or in the Antarctic, Peneston wants to ensure he is exposing his students to the authentic, real-world, problem-solving experiences field scientists encounter. Peneston, a member of the United Liverpool Faculty Association, believes the experience is crucial to his students' development.

"I grew up in a family that valued the outdoors and valued the environment," said Peneston, who remembers watching Jacques Cousteau television specials as a child.

It is no surprise then that Peneston chose to teach earth science and does so in the outdoors whenever possible. Out in the field, students get the opportunity to work on problems for which Peneston may not have an answer. "Because that's reality," said Peneston.

"Jeff Peneston is a shining example of excellence in education," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "His dedication to his students and to his profession makes him a worthy recipient of the New York State Teacher of the Year award."

Peneston's award has energized the school district because it "reminds us of what we do right; and that is to give teachers the freedom to be the best that they can be," said Pattie Miller, president of the United Liverpool FA.

Inside his classroom

Peneston covers a great deal of ground — literally and figuratively — in a 75-minute block. He begins with a lesson about plate tectonics and finding the rate of plate movement per year. He walks his students through converting 94 kilometers per million years into centimeters per year, without a calculator. "I know you can figure this out," he says.

"The strategic challenge for me in my classroom is getting my students to understand that I know from experience that they can do things, even if they're not sure they can do them," Peneston said. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Expedition Earth Science program.

Peneston believes that getting his students outdoors gives them a chance to gain additional knowledge and life skills. Peneston and co-teacher Drew Calderwood created the Expedition Earth Science program 11 years ago so their students could experience real life problem-solving in the field. The two teachers offer six to 10 such expeditions each year.

"Jeff and I share a similar philosophy toward education," said Calderwood. "We are both interested in having kids become problem-solvers and creative thinkers. We want them to think beyond the 'Trivial Pursuit' knowledge of the Regents tests."

The extra-curricular program is designed to be affordable. A recent weekend trip to Camp Talooli in Pennellville cost students just $35. The camp is owned and operated by Camp Fire USA's Central New York Council, where Peneston's wife, Jan, is the executive director. Parents serve as chaperones and help with transportation.

"The children are involved in small group authentic research, in adult partnership where the students are actually leading the discovery and the learning," said Jan Peneston, who often accompanies her husband on the trips. The expeditions always incorporate tech-nology, involve gathering and analyzing data, and creating presentations. Some students make i-movies on laptop computers; the movies are then shared with classmates who were not able to attend.

One expedition had students outsmarting a colony of beavers, and restoring the lake's water level to an appropriate height by inserting hidden pipes into the damn the beavers had built. "They did it," said a smiling Peneston. "And I didn't have the answer ahead of time.

"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I have an administration that supports me, a colleague who supports me and a wife who does everything with me."

Now in his 25th year of teaching, Peneston said once he mastered getting his students to pass the Regents he sought to surpass that in order to create good citizens.

"Teaching is emotional for me," he said. "I have to believe in my students' ability to get the job done. I'm not going to let them back down and take the easy way out, because the easy way out leads to failure."