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Release: Oct. 18, 2002

Science education doctoral candidate named top teacher by USA Today

Hector Ibarra, a science teacher at West Branch Middle School and a doctoral candidate in the University of Iowa College of Education, is one of only 20 teachers and teaching teams nationwide selected by USA Today for its 2002 All-USA Teacher First Team.

An article announcing the news appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 17 print edition of USA Today. The article is also available online at

USA Today selected 18 individuals and two instructional teams from among hundreds of nominees nationwide, based on what the paper considered their success at educating the "total child." According to an article on the honorees, the teachers selected "embody the notion of reaching out to every child, in ways that can and can't be measured by standardized tests."

Team members will receive trophies and $2,500 for each of their schools.

A teacher for 27 years, Ibarra received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Iowa, both in science education, and he plans to complete his requirements for a Ph.D.

Ibarra, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade general and earth science, was nominated for the team by Nancy Schmitz, a former principal of West Branch Middle School, in large part because of his hands-on approach to science education. As USA Today reports, Ibarra and his students have analyzed the cost of conventional versus fluorescent lighting in the West Branch School District, studied the environmental impact of used automobile oil filters, are planning to build miniature solar cars that may soon take part in a national competition and are coordinating a project with students in Japan that involves the construction of Lego-based rovers that will be controlled over the Internet.

Since 1992, Ibarra has won nearly $500,000 in grants. And his research into his school district's lighting costs led to the district switching to fluorescent lights, saving taxpayers $1,000 a month. The project was cited by President Clinton in a 1997 speech in his address on Global Climate Change.

Ibarra is modest about his successes, including the USA Today recognition.

"It's a great honor," Ibarra says. "But I also know that we represent many other outstanding teachers who do as good or better job than I do."

"I know I'm probably the best teacher in my classroom, so that's all I have to worry about," he adds.

Ibarra credits the UI College of Education for inspiring him to make science education more meaningful to his students. He says John Dunkhase, a lecturer in the college's science education program and coordinator of the program's graduate outreach efforts, "probably made me who I am."

He said Dunkhase taught him to encourage students to seek the answers to scientific questions using inquiry rather than by taking what Ibarra calls a "cookbook approach" to science by simply following some "recipe" outlined in a textbook.

Ibarra also credits science education professor Edward Pizzini for teaching him the importance of research and the need to examine problems from multiple perspectives.

Those skills have come in handy over the years, not only in the classroom but in planning some of Ibarra's more ambitious projects. The miniature solar car race, which Ibarra spearheaded with the help of a $200,000 sponsoring grant from the Iowa Energy Center, involved 100 Iowa teachers and more than 10,000 middle school students over five years.

Now that that's out of the way, Ibarra is preparing for a regional miniature solar car race next May in West Branch, one of 16 sites nationwide. Winners at the regional level will compete in a national race in June in Golden Springs, Colo.