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B.A. Top Teacher Has World View

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INTERNATIONAL IMPACT: Broken Arrow Public Schools District Teacher of the Year Donna Gradel, second from left, stands with some of her students during their 2016 trip to Kenya. Gradel, who teaches environmental science at the High School, has taken her students to the Tharaka Nithi region of Kenya twice in order to build aquaponic systems and help the Kenyan people gain sustainable food sources.

Courtesy photo

Broken Arrow Public Schools 2017 District Teacher of the Year Donna Gradel is empowering her high school students to make both local and international impacts.

Gradel was set on the teaching track by her college basketball coach who provided guidance to Gradel after she was injured and could not continue playing through the basketball season. She kept Gradel engaged on the team and helped Gradel recognize her desire to coach basketball.

Gradel also loves science, a love that was developed early by her father, who held degrees in biology and chemistry.

“I have always been fascinated with life and how things develop,” she says.

Gradel went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in physical education with a minor in biology from West Virginia University. She later earned her master’s degree in early childhood motor development, largely focusing on the long-term effects of environment versus genetics in a person’s development of motor skills.

Gradel’s first teaching job, due to the lack of availability of science teaching jobs, was a special education position that involved instructing middle-school-aged students with a wide range of disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities and social and emotional disturbances.

“That experience set the tone for my whole teaching career,” she says. “Those years were exactly what I needed because they solidified my view of teaching: seeing each student as a person, meeting them where they are and helping to get them where they need to go.

“It helped to develop my teaching philosophy, that regardless of a student’s situation or background, they all want to learn and to develop.”

After coming to the greater Tulsa area, Gradel spent five years at Nathan Hale High School, teaching biology and coaching girls’ basketball.

Her move to Broken Arrow Public Schools came about due to the encouragement of a colleague.

She has been with the district for 21 years, her total years in education being 30.
Gradel currently teaches Environmental Science and Advanced Placement Environmental Science.

Part of her teaching philosophy revolves around project-based, application learning, an outlook that has worked seamlessly with her efforts to incorporate her students into real-world projects.

In 2009, Gradel involved her students in Project Learning Tree, a national green schools program through which her students introduced several environmentally-friendly initiatives to the High School, including a recycling program and composting area. They also conducted energy and air quality audits to determine energy-saving measures.

“It got students thinking, ‘we’re doing all this here on our campus, why aren’t we doing this somewhere else, doing something bigger?’” says Gradel. “It raised their awareness.”

In 2012, Gradel’s students took broader steps to help. Gradel, who traveled to the Tharaka Nithi region of Kenya in 2004, shared with her students the challenges of the people in that region.

Because of the location of much of the country’s water running deep underground, drilling is expensive and cannot easily be done. In addition, the people needed a sustainable way to care for fish that had been provided by the government.

Gradel’s students, thus, created a campaign, called Aqua for Tharaka, to raise money to drill for water in the region and to create aquaponic structures. Students sold water bottles and brought in donations totaling $18,000.

The following year, they took a trip to the area to build the aquaponic systems and other structures, including a greenhouse.

About a year later, Gradel set her students on their next project involving the same area to provide fish food that the people could make themselves.

To fund the project, Gradel applied for a grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for $10,000 and was one of 15 to receive a grant in 2014.

From September 2014 to June 2015, her students met weekly and over weekends and holidays to research and create a sustainable, self-made fish food. In total, Gradel estimates that her five students spent a total of 470 hours, with Gradel spending double that amount.
“We had to create a fish food that was a low cost, sustainable and indigenous to the area,” says Gradel.

After a year of research and trial-and-error, the group came to its final food solution, made of bee wax, mealworms, algae, duckweed, sugar cane and rice waste.

Once the students determined the ingredients, they spent time testing the food. They also made instruction manuals for the Kenyans, which they gave to the people when the students visited the region in 2016.

“We empowered them to both raise the fish and to make the food,” Gradel says.
While the Kenyans benefited greatly from the students’ work, the students also walked away with instructional and life lessons.

“The students learned so much culturally and intellectually, and they got to work alongside the Kenyans, which was their favorite part,” she says.

Since that experience, Gradel has received calls from various groups who have heard about her students’ work, including the International Climate Center regarding the creation of sustainable communities and the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology.

“This project showed that my class was doing upper level research beyond the high school level,” Gradel says.

Gradel will take her real-world offerings even further in the 2017-2018 school year, when she will begin teaching a new class called Innovative Research.

Included in Gradel’s planned projects is to transform a portion of land north of 61st Street, across from the High School, into a park, growing various plants and using the area to help increase the populations of certain bird species, whose numbers are on the decline.

“The class will be based on the thought that students want to make a difference, so how can my curriculum help them to do that?”

Updated 06-27-2017

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