For his inventive teaching, ongoing geochemical research, and work with kindergarten through 12th grade science educators in the East Bay, Jeffery Seitz – longtime faculty member and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences – was named Cal State East Bay’s George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor for 2009-2010.
“Jeff is just tireless, and he is passionate about what he does,” said Robert Curtis, science coordinator for the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) and one of six colleagues who nominated Seitz.
He loves teaching, particularly in his specialty of geochemistry.
“It may not be my students’ favorite class, because it can be pretty difficult,” he said with a knowing laugh. “There’s calculus.”
Seitz understands just how intimidating the subject can be.
“When a student comes to me and is struggling with (calculus), I tell them my secret,” he said. “And that is, when I started in college, I was in math remediation.” In fact, Seitz started college as a music major and spent a year in remedial math before a caring professor recognized his aptitude and steered him toward geology.
“So when I have a student who’s having problems with calculus or math, I tell them: ‘You’re not the only one; I did too,’” Seitz said.
One thing that helped Seitz understand math was its use in modeling geochemical properties, a subject he now studies in his lab. Funded by a NASA astrobiology grant, Seitz is measuring how organic molecules behave at high temperatures and pressures – information that may help explain how life on earth originated.
Besides answering basic scientific questions, Seitz loves research because it makes him a better teacher.
“As a science educator, I have to be a scientist as well,” he said. “To teach science, you have to do science. Otherwise, you’re not going to be current, and you’re not going to be passionate.”
Many professors don’t visit public school classrooms, but Seitz does. In 2002, he knocked on Scott Wagner’s door at Winton Middle School in Hayward.
“I get things stuffed in my mailbox about educational programs and products all the time,” said Wagner, who teaches eighth-grade science. “But it’s not the same as showing up and explaining what you’re trying to do, like Jeff did.”
Seitz recruited Wagner for the Bay Area Environmental Science Teaching (BEST) Institute, a summertime project to train middle school science teachers. That project grew into the East Bay Science Project and spawned NASA LIFT OFF (a similar program for high school science teachers.
From 1998 to the present, Seitz has helped attract $14.5 million in grant funding to improve science education in the region’s K-12 schools. And while he acknowledges that improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is a national imperative, Seitz has a more personal motivation.
“It’s another opportunity to talk about science,” he said. “That’s been my motivation in doing professional development work with teachers: the love of science and wanting to share that with other teachers.”
Seitz admits that it’s sometimes difficult to balance his many activities, but it’s worth the effort.
“It’s a struggle to fit it all in a day,” he said. “But I love the science education work, and I love the research. Each one makes me better at the other.”