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Two women embracing at a podium.
Sonya Loughran received the 2024 Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award at the Texas Science and Engineering Fair awards ceremony on March 23, 2024. | Image: Texas A&M Engineering

Sonya Loughran, a teacher at Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District’s (ISD) Colleyville Heritage High School, was named the 2024 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.

Loughran received the award at the TXSEF Awards Ceremony, which was held at Texas A&M University March 23. The award includes a $1,000 cash prize and an invitation to attend the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (CAST). 

“Receiving this award was a big surprise. It means a lot, especially after all of these years of teaching,” the 27-year classroom veteran said. “For me, to be recognized for my work with the science fair — which is something I’ve loved since I was 12 years old — is such an amazing honor. I’m very passionate about the science fair, and I really try to encourage my students to be passionate about research. I’ve seen it change lives.”

Loughran is the third person to receive the award since its inception in 2022. The award was created in memory of Truman T. Bell, who was a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and TXSEF. His 45-plus-year career spanned 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. 

I’m very passionate about the science fair, and I really try to encourage my students to be passionate about research. I’ve seen it change lives.

Sonya Loughran

Nurturing a Passion for Science

Born in Vietnam, Loughran came to the United States when she was two years old. Her family settled in Everman, Texas, a small town near Fort Worth that proved to be a great place for a child with a budding interest in science. “In Everman, the science teachers always encouraged science fair participation, so I started in sixth grade and competed all the way through high school,” she said. “But it was my chemistry teacher who was the one who really pushed us. He’d encourage us to stay after school and work in his lab.”

These experiences proved formative. “It went from a science project that I did at home to realizing that there was so much more to research,” Loughran explained. “It was a chance to do something different with your friends outside of the normal school day.”

She also relished the early opportunity to explore her own interests. “The science fair project was something I could choose — and I’ve always been really interested in environmental science,” Loughran said, adding that some of her own science fair projects focused on erosion prevention and measuring a river’s oxygen levels to gauge pollutants and analyze the survival of aquatic life. 

Loughran began working as an environmental chemist while attending the University of Texas-Arlington, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. “I thought this was what I wanted to do for my entire life,” she said. “But I was working in a lab, and I just ran the same tests every day. After two years, I started wondering if there was something else.”

At the time, she was also teaching Sunday school and began seeing another career path emerge. “I’ve always loved kids,” she recalled. “I decided to try to see if teaching would be a better fit for me.” 

Loughran returned to UT-Arlington to earn her master’s degree in education and accepted the only available GCISD science teaching position, which was in physics. When a chemistry job opened up a year later, she took it — and never looked back. 

Influencing Students

Over the course of her career, Loughran continued to teach physics and all levels of chemistry while sponsoring the school’s chemistry club and the Science National Honor Society. “Chemistry is definitely where my heart is at,” she said, adding that she taps into her own experiences with her chemistry teacher and her science fair projects in planning her approach to teaching. 

As a result, Loughran wanted to offer her top students the opportunity to participate in science competitions. Seven years ago, she received approval to create a course called Advanced Chemistry Research and Design. The first semester gives these students class time to work on research projects while the second semester focuses on advanced chemistry. 

When I go to TXSEF and see all the projects, it makes me feel great about the upcoming generation. You realize that we’re in good hands with all of those amazing, brilliant students.

Sonya Loughran

“I have students who use this class to explore areas that they’re truly interested in that they never had time to do before,” Loughran said. “Every student has a box of just their things that they take to start working on their research every day. My job has changed from a teaching role to being a facilitator where I talk to the students about their progress. This really has taught students to be advocates for themselves.”

The class has proved transformative for many students. For example, one student who was originally from China always wanted to study machine learning but didn’t have any background in computer science. “She had to teach herself all of the coding all on her own time, but she loved it. It was something that she never thought she would be interested in,” Loughran said. “What she then envisioned was designing a program in which a rice farmer in China could take a picture and then use her program to identify what stage of disease the rice plants had. Her work got first place in plant science, and she went on to compete in state science fair — and to pursue a degree in computer science.”

Providing these types of opportunities for students to pursue their passions excites Loughran. To that end, she encourages students to seek academic and industry mentors in specific fields where she doesn’t have expertise. “Every year my students reach out to professors from all over the world to serve as mentors,” she said. “That’s one of the coolest things; we’ll have students who have mentors in Australia, Israel and China. It’s amazing — you never see students so excited as when they get an email from a professor. We share it with the class and have a little celebration when students get paired up with mentors.”

Yet, Loughran believes that she’s benefitting as much as her students. “As I go into the last few years of my career, it’s easily my favorite class because I get a chance to learn, which is so exciting,” she said. “For example, I know nothing about computer science, so when the kids do their presentations, I’m always learning something from their projects.”

Over the last seven years, Loughan has had 300 students qualify for TXSEF, and most of her students go on to pursue STEM-related careers. “When I go to TXSEF and see all the projects, it makes me feel great about the upcoming generation,” she said. “You realize that we’re in good hands with all of those amazing, brilliant students.”