People to Watch
(page 3 of 11)
Photographs courtesy of Maribel Pregnall
By: Valerie Havas
Canoeing, scuba-diving, whale watching, camping on a mangrove island... If this doesn’t sound like your high school science class, then you probably never had a teacher like Maribel Pregnall. Now in her 20th year of teaching science at Dutchess County’s Arlington High School, Pregnall is the kind of teacher we all wish we’d had.
“Teaching, to me, is a new adventure every day,” says the 45-year-old educator, one of four finalists for the 2009 New York State Teacher of the Year award. “Calling it a job seems far too mundane.” She has taught virtually every science course offered by her school, including AP biology, marine biology, oceanography, and a research course.
Where Pregnall differs from many teachers is in her embrace of hands-on teaching tools. Her classroom currently has seven large marine aquaria, four small freshwater aquaria, and one large trout aquarium. (There are also four snakes, a lizard, a turtle, and the occasional hamster or two.) A typical classroom activity might involve caring for trout embryos until they are large enough to release into streams in the Hudson watershed.
What do Pregnall’s charges think of sharing space with a bunch of fish? “Once my students get over the fishy smell, the swishing and sloshing and gurgling sounds of water, the whirling noises of the pumps, and the general overstimulation of so much going on at once, they embrace the aquaria,” she asserts. “They quickly acquire a sense of ownership and pride and a caring, nurturing attitude about the tanks and the creatures that live in them.”
The Hudson River is another invaluable teaching resource. When Pregnall’s students first look at the river, she notes, their reaction is to say that it’s polluted. As a result, she spends a lot of time encouraging them to see the Hudson as she sees it — “an incredibly productive ecosystem rich in phytoplankton and animal diversity.”
Recently, she and some fellow teachers accompanied 30 students to the shoreline in Poughkeepsie as part of a program called “A Day in the Life of the Hudson.” The students measured turbidity, salinity, currents, and fish diversity, among other things. The endeavor, involving thousands of students up and down the river, provides a scientific “snapshot” of the Hudson from multiple locations, taken at a given point in time.
Other field trip destinations include Tivoli Bay, which students explore in canoes; the Vassar College pool, where they are introduced to scuba-diving skills; Key Largo, Florida, where they collect data on a threatened seagrass bed and kayak out to a campsite on a mangrove island; and the Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts, where they go whale watching. “I believe that education must extend beyond the four traditional classroom walls,” Pregnall explains.
Recent budget cutbacks have forced Pregnall to curtail some trips. As a result, she is bringing more educational programs into the school — including ones showcasing wolves and birds of prey — and planning local expeditions to a nearby streams and wetlands. Currently, her science research students are using radio telemetry to monitor the locations of several Blanding’s turtles, members of an endangered species.
Born in Massachusetts, Pregnall lived for some years in Vermont, where she remembers milking cows, shoveling manure, carrying pails of maple sap, and watching calves being born. “The farm and the wilds of Vermont instilled in me a love of biology and the outdoors,” she suggests. A later move to coastal Maine sealed her love affair with the sea. “I swam in the ocean all summer long, waded in tide pools, jumped off piers on Peaks Island, explored abandoned Army barracks on the 365 islands offshore of Portland, and thoroughly enjoyed the rugged life of being a Mainer,” she remembers.
Pregnall’s high school science teacher encouraged her to pursue a career in science: “She inspired me to learn, to question, to explore.” At Smith College, where she majored in biology, Pregnall worked in neuroscience labs and in the college’s botanical gardens. Later, she interned on a whale-watching vessel; after spending the day recording whale behavior and photographing flukes, the future educator walked around the boat talking with the tourists. “I loved sharing my knowledge with them just as much as I enjoyed listening to their own observations of the animals,” she recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher.”
A number of her former students are pursuing careers in scientific fields, including as teachers. One former student works for the Environmental Protection Agency in chemistry; another is a rescue scuba diver for a Texas fire department; and several others will graduate from medical school this year. “Even if they don’t go on to science-related careers,” Pregnall says, “it is my biggest hope that students leave my classroom with an appreciation of science and the outdoors.”
As for Pregnall, she has no regrets about her chosen career. “Besides my husband of 22 years,” she says, “the job at Arlington turned out to be the best catch of my life!”
» Next: Meet Mara Farrell