A taste for adventure
When Sherri Steward-Ganz enters her environmental science 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.
A teacher at Grapevine High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Steward-Ganz has studied chimps in Africa, orangutans in
Borneo and endangered leatherback sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her adventures read like an ecological Indiana Jones travel book.
From Burundi to Zambia to the Galapagos Islands, and back to Grapevine, she spreads goodwill and inspires students with a love of nature.
Steward-Ganz lists primatologist Jane Goodall as her mentor. But her first hero was her father, William Steward.
"As a child, I saw my father struggle with a disability from a Korean Warinjury," she says. "At an early age, I understood life is short."
As a child, she escaped into the great outdoors for diversion with her brother and sister.
"We loved to explore the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains," shesays. "We crawled through a drain pipe under eight lanes of traffic toreach those mountains."
Her mother, Lorene, believed that one of her children would become a scientist after they used the family's bathtub to hold 20 big bullfrogs hostage.
"My mother was surprised by the bullfrogs," says Steward-Ganz. "Thefrogs 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, addingthat she actually climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1998. "If I have a dream, I'm going to make it real."
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 whowent to the wilds of Africa to pursue her dreams. She studied chimps and showedus a glimpse of some of our nearest relatives," Steward-Ganz says.
Knowing that she would study animals and go to exotic places one day, Steward-Ganz majored in biology and kinesiology at North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas. She 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," shesays.
As a teacher, Steward-Ganz has been inspiring students of her own by using the high school as a base camp for her worldwide studies.
One of her most memorable projects began after she attended a presentation Goodall was giving in Fort Worth. Steward-Ganz became 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, also a war veteran, helped dedicate the memorial.
"Respect for our legacy — humanity and nature — is the mostimportant thing to teach a child," Steward-Ganz says.
The influence of the center has reached far beyond Grapevine. GHS students helped Goodall raise funds for an endangered primate sanctuary in Bujumbura, Burundi, in 1991-92.
Former GHS student Mandy Williams 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," shesays.
Instead of learning about Africa entirely from a book, students view photos from Steward-Ganz's travels.
Photos taken in Lusaka, Zambia include the Bauleni Primary School, with bright, smiling faces gracing every shot. 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 ofthe school," Williams says. "The signs of cholera made me see howgood I have it here. It made me ask questions about what I could do to help."
In 1999, Williams traveled with Steward-Ganz to the Galapagos Islands, where they created a PBS-sponsored "cyber field trip" hosted by actor Alan Alda.
As Scientific American Frontiers school program ambassadors, Williams and Steward-Ganz broadcasted 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 scientistsand Alan Alda," says Steward-Ganz.
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 monumentaltask of creating an eco-lab on a dumpsite. They gave up their allowances andworked at fast-food restaurants to build a water well, a chimp sanctuary anda 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 battlesand all my dreams seem to be at my fingertips," she says.
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 ambitionI had ever imagined," Owens says.
Owens' 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, I've encouraged African children topursue their dreams, helped kids in Europe tackle eating disorders, educatedyouth on wildlife and environmental issues and, most importantly, made changesin my own life," Owens says.
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