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Issue date: September 22, 2000

Teacher of the Year Teacher of the Year (September 22, 2000)

Amador biology teacher brings hands-on activities to students

by Stephanie Ericson

Eric Thiel remembers when he taught at Foothill High and the biology teachers wanted to perk up student interest in one of their less exciting topics - the classification of living things. They came up with a winning recipe.

"We would have an invertebrate feast, with a representative from each family," Thiel said. "There were pickled jellyfish, mussels, even grasshopper pie and all sorts of things."

They also made an "outstanding salad" with all the different parts of various plants, he said. "It added flavor to the subject, so to speak," he noted.

Adding flavor to science is what Thiel does best. Thiel, who taught for seven years at Foothill and is now in his 10th year at Amador Valley High, was picked as this year's Teacher of the Year by the Pleasanton school district.

In addition to teaching biology, Thiel provides valuable technical computer support to the school, and in 1999 he was honored as Teacher of the Year by the California Technology Assistance Project for the region covering most of the Bay Area.

Thiel is also faculty advisor for the school's Environmental Club and he coaches golf at the school. The father of three, he also has spent many years coaching soccer and baseball for his two sons' teams.

"He's just a dynamic person and has amazing, wonderful relationships with his kids," said Beth Seeley, a new science teacher at Amador who student-taught under him two years ago. "He has a great hold on biology. It's his passion and it's contagious. A lot of his students have success because of that."

Amador Principal Bill Coupe agreed, noting that students of Thiel have won the top awards in Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair for the last three years.

"He has the ability to make the curriculum come alive for the students in his classes and he supports use of technology in classroom," Coupe said.

Colleague Clif Simms described Thiel as a pioneer in education, creatively incorporating the technical expertise he has gained outside the classroom into his teaching.

"He's my mentor," Simms said simply. "I just follow in his footsteps."

Part of that expertise comes from working on summer projects at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory since 1987. When he worked at the lab's earth science department during the summer of 1992, for example, he developed an interactive educational software program on earthquakes. Thiel took advantage of his new skills to put his own biology class lessons on the same software.

Thiel is probably most known for "Project Creek Watch," which he co-founded with Simms and Amador colleague Pia Roselli during the 1994 spring term. The three decided that the nearby Arroyo Del Valle, which has water in it year-round, provided a good opportunity to incorporate hands-on science and ecology into the biology curriculum. Thiel wrote up grant proposals that brought in community funding to buy the equipment needed for their program and, later, to launch the informative Project Creek Web page.

"The goal is to let kids realize there are a number of different physical and biological components that allow these organisms (in the creek) to coexist," said Thiel. "I hope they walk away able to see how complex ecosystems are."

It was through marine biology that Thiel discovered teaching. After getting his bachelor's degree in biology, Thiel planned to attend graduate school. "Teaching hadn't even entered my mind," he said. But after Thiel helped his former biology teacher at Bishop O'Dowd High School develop a curriculum in marine biology, the teacher encouraged him to teach there the following year. He ended up teaching at O'Dowd for 10 years before coming to Foothill.

With a master's in educational technology and his summer intern projects at LLNL, Thiel brings wide-ranging expertise to his technical support work at Amador. His tasks range from computer trouble-shooting to assisting teachers in integrating technology into their curricula.

But mention of an early project at LLNL, writing a guide on the potential of the World Wide Web, elicited some sheepish reflection. Although he was familiar with Internet companies long before most people, he never thought to use this information to make personal financial investments.

"It's kind of embarrassing admitting that I wrote this," Thiel said. "But my mind has never been on making money and that is probably one of my biggest flaws."

Nevertheless, teaching has provided its own rich rewards, Thiel said.

"To have kids come back to say very positive things about how I have influenced them and helped them with some concerns... makes it all worthwhile," he said. "There have been times I have contemplated looking into other careers, but there would always be some kid who makes a timely comment to make me realize that I'm doing what I should be doing." <@$p>

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