Bringing biology to life: Vail Mountain School teacher earns Outstanding Biology Teacher award |

Bringing biology to life: Vail Mountain School teacher earns Outstanding Biology Teacher award

‘Mr. Sapp’ recognized by National Association of Biology Teachers

Vail Mountain School science teacher Ross Sappenfield works with students Anna Pope and Elaine Campbell on a lab experiment. Students explored whether lights with different colors and wattages could affect the rate of photosynthesis in spinach leaves.
Photo courtesy of Vail Mountain School

Ross Sappenfield, a science teacher at Vail Mountain School, loves science and enjoying everything the Rocky Mountains have to offer.

His students love how he teaches and brings the subject to life, whether that’s in the classroom, in the lab, or out on a field trip, mountain biking or hiking and exploring different ecosystems.

“I love going to Mr. Sapp’s class because of his excitement about the little things,” said senior Hayley Bill. 

“He is the kind of person that has so much enthusiasm for hands-on learning that it rubs off on his students, and then suddenly the whole class is eagerly gathering materials because we just can’t wait to try out whatever he has planned for us,” Bill said. “That’s how you know you have a good teacher. You don’t even realize you’re learning because they make it feel fun.”

The National Association of Biology Teachers agrees with Bill’s assessment. The association, founded in 1938, each year recognizes the best biology teacher in all 50 states. This month, it announced it will recognize “Mr. Sapp” with the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for Colorado for 2019-2020.

Sappenfield is in his 30th year teaching at Vail Mountain School. He graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he majored in chemistry and minored in biology and education.

“I came here right out of undergrad,” Sappenfield said. “Literally the day I finished student teaching I got in my car to drive out and be a ski bum.”

Sappenfield wasn’t a ski bum for long. In his first few days in town, he heard about a science teaching job at Vail Mountain School and applied. 

“I love my job. It’s been a great job, in part because of all the energy the kids give back to me. I put a lot of energy into my job, but I get more out of it from the kids, just engaging with them in the process of learning and life,” Sappenfield said.

“That’s what makes it fun, when the kids get enthusiastic about whatever it is — the lab we’re doing, the content we’re studying, the adventure we’re taking. When you see them move from passive to active, that’s really exciting and invigorating and it’s made this job amazing.”

Another rewarding part of the job: Seeing how many students have gone on to careers in science. 

“My job is to create a setting where students feel motivated, curious and engaged in science and want to continue it in the future. Any time I hear that a student has gone into science, in undergrad or grad school, or gone on to become a physician or a researcher, I’m excited because I didn’t ruin it for them,” he said.

Sappenfield said he’s honored to be recognized by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

“It feels good to be recognized for my commitment to this profession, having my peers see me as a good mentor just as I see them as good mentors,” Sappenfield said.

Teaching science is only part of the job for Sappenfield, who chairs Vail Mountain School’s science department. He offers summer camps for younger students, taking them on field trips to explore science and natural resources, and helps introduce them to the lab work that’s being done by older students. He helps tutor the school’s most competitive skiers in the winter and has served as a coach, backcountry hut trip leader, mountain biking expert and fitness teacher for the school. He’s even helped students plan a few proms.

“This is an amazing accomplishment and very well deserved,” Mike Imperi, head of school, said about Sappenfield’s award. “Ross definitely makes VMS a better place and we are all very proud of him. Ross is living proof that science matters.”

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