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Two students sit at a classroom desk playing with virtual reality headsets and controllers.
China Spring Middle School teacher Rachel Stolle uses experiential learning experiences and you can often find her students using technology like the Occulus Quest in her science classroom. | Image: Courtesy of Rachel Stolle
Rachel Stolle, a teacher at China Spring Independent School District’s (ISD) China Spring Middle School, is the 2023 recipient of the Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award. The Bell Award recognizes Texas teachers, sponsors and advocates of the Texas Science and Engineering Fair (TXSEF) who have gone above and beyond their expected responsibilities to serve their constituents, community, colleagues and students in support of the fair.

Stolle received the award at the TXSEF Advisory Board dinner at Texas A&M University on March 25. The Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award includes a $1,000 cash prize and an invitation to present at the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (CAST).

Stolle, a 12-year classroom veteran, is the second recipient of the award, which was created in memory of Truman T. Bell. Bell — a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and TXSEF. His 45-plus-year career included university student services, industry human resources, corporate recruiting, public affairs and foundation administration. Bell worked at Tarleton State University and Texas Tech University before joining ExxonMobil, where he served as the company headquarters’ community relations manager. In that role, he stewarded local community investments as well as diversity and education programs for both the corporation and ExxonMobil Foundation. Bell also helped influence critical decisions about STEM education programs as well as initiatives designed to improve career opportunities for women and minorities.
A woman wears a red superhero mask, red cape and blue shirt as she stands against a chalkboard background with a paper thought bubble with the words “Making Science AWSOME periodically.”
Bringing whimsy to her science class lessons, China Spring Middle School teacher Rachel Stolle wears a mask and a cape to teach about the periodic table. | Image: Courtesy of Rachel Stolle
Digging into science

Growing up in Jefferson, Texas, Stolle credits her science teachers at Jefferson High School, part of the Jefferson ISD, for sparking her interest in the subject. “I would tie my love for science back to my early experiences in high school,” she said. “I had a really great educator, Mrs. Burns, in my high school biology class and it was the first time that I had what would be considered a lecture course today. We were presented with the material, expected to take notes but also figure out within those notes what was important and then apply that to our learning. I found it challenging — but I also found that when I was willing to dig in and do the work, I would excel at it. And I just really enjoyed the content.”

After graduation, Stolle enrolled at Baylor University as a biology major with plans to pursue a medical career. However, she realized during her junior year that her life priorities had shifted to wanting to have a family. “While you can do that in medicine, I was tired of being in school and didn’t really want to commit myself to a master’s, a doctorate and a residency program,” she explained.

She began to consider what other careers aligned with her biology coursework. “Education was a perfect fit, but I wasn’t really sure,” Stolle said. “I’m a great student, I love school and I love being on the student side of it, but I wasn’t sure about being on the teaching side of it.”

However, she decided to try working in education. Because she hadn’t earned her state teacher certification yet, she joined Texas Christian Academy, a private school in the Waco area, for three years where she taught science and theater. When her first child was born, Stolle became a stay-at-home mom until both of her daughters reached school age. At that point, Stolle entered an alternative certification program and earned her state teaching certificate as a composite science teacher that certified her to teach biology, chemistry, earth science and physics/astronomy.

Stolle soon found herself leading a science classroom at La Vega ISD (LVISD) and credits LVISD teacher Ginny Ellis (who is now a La Vega principal) for mentoring her. “She basically taught me everything about how to be a good educator,” Stolle said. “The district also offered some phenomenal training, so I came out of that employment feeling very well equipped to do what I do today.”

Yet, Stolle had to leave the classroom again, this time due to a health crisis. During recovery, she returned to the role of stay-at-home mom and the family soon adopted two sons. Additionally, she assisted her husband in leading their church’s youth ministry.

Relying on play

Eventually, Stolle decided that she was ready to return to the classroom. She joined China Spring ISD where she was assigned to an eighth-grade science classroom and given one section to devote to a science fair.

Stolle prides herself on her student-friendly classroom environment that embraces the Trust Based Relational Interventions (TBRI) model, which incorporates play into the classroom. “I am an extremely nontraditional teacher. Just about everything we do in the classroom is designed to trick the students into learning,” she said, adding that her classroom includes a disco ball and music. “Somebody who didn’t know me and didn’t know what was happening in my classroom at first glance would think it’s a party every day and there is nothing going on. It is loud and chaotic — and kids are up [and moving] so it doesn’t look at all like what you’d expect a science lab class to look like.”

Yet Stolle’s approach has led to results. “Kids are learning hands-on content that maybe stereotypically would be given to them on a worksheet. But in my room, they’re doing the work on an Oculus Quest or they’re using Scratch and making their own program to demonstrate their understanding of learning,” she explained. “It’s a very nontraditional approach designed for students to experience their learning as an active participant, not just to regurgitate facts. I want them to take what I’ve taught them, apply it and show what they can do with it.”

Stolle is especially committed to helping every one of her middle school students grasp the content so they can academically succeed. “They work at such a high level and cover so much content, but because of the way that I do it, they don’t realize that’s what’s happening,” Stolle said.

Great results

While she was ready to return to the classroom, Stolle faced a learning curve in organizing the China Spring Middle School students’ involvement in the science fair. “At first, I was kind of overwhelmed,” she explained. “I had been part of science fair at Texas Christian Academy, but I had never been the sponsor. I had judged and overseen the process. I had led some students on some projects locally, but I wasn’t part of taking out to regionals and state.”

Yet she embraced what she describes as “the huge learning curve.” Stolle is committed to having her middle students take complete ownership of their project. “As science fair coordinator, my vision for my students is basically an introduction to real-world problem solving and real-world engineering,” she said. “It’s important to make that process personal to them, because then they are going to care about it more than, ‘Here’s a project, go do it.’”

As part of the process, Stolle helps students connect with mentors in the field, whether that’s the faculty at Baylor University or the research lab at Sanderson Farms. She also endeavors to engage students’ families in providing support. “I try to explain to those who enroll in the course that this is a family ordeal,” she said. “I only have a 48-minute class period once a day so there is no way for students to experiment and run trials within the class period. My function within the class is to guide them through the rules, regulations, data entry into the Scienteer platform and then the requirements to compete. Ultimately, the burden lies with parents to provide students with what they need to do the experimentation and then to allow them the time and space at home to do that testing.”

This approach has worked, and her students continually have experienced success in the science fair. “The students in my elective course performed well at the regional level and I had two of them advance      to the state level,” she said. “One of those students won his category in state that year.”

The students have continued to perform well in subsequent years. “Every year, every one of my middle school students places at regionals and makes it to state,” Stolle said, adding that because of this stellar record, she agreed to serve as an unpaid sponsor of the high school science club to allow her students to continue to compete in the science fair.

China Spring parents are appreciative of how Stolle goes the extra mile to support their children in exploring STEM topics. “Being in her science fair class/group, my son has been privileged to meet and work with professors in engineering, which has sparked an interest in that field of study,” said Amber Martinez, a China Spring ISD parent. “She sets high expectations for her students, not just as a student/science fair participant, but as members of our community. She always goes above and beyond in her service to her constituents, community, colleagues and students in promoting and supporting the Texas Science and Engineering Fair.”