Jacob Helf, a Master’s student in Science Education, has been named this year’s winner of the Mason Fellowship, given to just one pre-service science teacher in the state. Helf, who grew up in Homewood, wants to inspire high school students to understand the world we live in.
The fellowship is awarded by the Alabama Academy of Science, and it was named in honor of William H. Mason, an Auburn biology professor who passed away over two decades ago.
“I just love science,” Helf said. “I love being able to explain the world to students because our planet, our world, is so large and complex. I love looking at its defining characteristics and the underlying causes of the natural phenomena we see around us. My desire as a teacher is for students to develop an appreciation for the grandeur of our planet and, as a result of that understanding, enjoy our life here and have a new appreciation and respect for all that it is.”
Like many aspiring teachers, Helf saw his best examples at home growing up.
“Both of my parents are teachers,” he said. “Dad was an AP Physics teacher at Homewood High School, and Mom is an elementary school reading specialist. My brother and I were both motivated by our parents to work hard and study at home, but I know not everyone has that kind of built-in support. I hope I can provide that motivation by having an inspiring, exciting classroom.”
As an Interdisciplinary Studies undergrad at Auburn, Helf focused on Physics, Hunger Studies, and Sustainability. But he always knew he wanted to teach.
“Right now I’m taking a lot of earth science classes, and this summer I’ll be going to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab for Oceanography and Marine Ecology,” he said. “I have my Methods classes with Dr. Chris Schnittka and Dr. Melody Russell in the College of Education. They have prepared me well for inquiry-based learning, and seeing how to make students feel like real scientists in a classroom while implementing technology in a responsible manner.”
“Dr. Schnittka is my advisor and has been really great, meeting me where I needed it in my transition to the College. I’m the first in my family to come to Auburn and I really like it here. It’s a good place with a lot of friendly faces.”
Island living brought home scientific truths
In the summer of 2016, Helf joined a dozen other Auburn undergrads on a trip to the South Pacific, where he spent time on a small island in Fiji.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Helf said. “We were with 20 local Fijians on a small island north of the mainland of Fiji, called Voro Voro. We lived minimally, with no running water or electricity. This is where I really gained an appreciation for sustainability. We collected rain water from a giant fan that led into a 10,000 liter tank, gathered coconuts, and caught fish on hand lines wrapped around bottles, among other daily chores. Nothing was wasted. Everything was valued.”
But it was the stories of the Islanders that were most meaningful to the aspiring earth scientist.
“As we worked alongside the local Fijians I was able to learn their stories,” Helf explained. “They talked about how their physical world was changing and the many ways that impacted the essence of their lives. I was able to see how a neighboring island had been impacted by climate change, and see the remnants of villages that had been pushed back by rising sea levels. Especially poignant was a huge tree that had once been the center of a village, and it was now sitting right on the shoreline. To see ‘proof’ of rising sea levels and how that threatened their way of life was hard to handle. Their lives were changing right before them, and they weren’t the cause of it! That change came from the actions of people a world away. What I thought was harmless in my daily life back home really and truly does impact people on the other side of the world.”
Like so many of our students who have had international experiences, Helf feels he is better prepared to meet his students wherever they are coming from.
“We all have different lived experiences,” he said. “I received a lot of internal motivation from my parents. But not everyone has that force that moves them forward. I want to be that person who will push my students and help them accomplish more than they thought was possible. Having seen with my own eyes how our actions impact the good people who live thousands of miles away, I can share that with my students and help them be a force for positive change in our world.”