National Geographic names 8 ‘Emerging Explorers;’ St. Johns teacher is one of them

Florida Times-Union | by Matt Soergel | October 16, 2020

A Creekside High School teacher joined some rarified company when she was named one of the National Geographic Society’s “Emerging Explorers” — just one of eight people worldwide given that honor.

Ali Pressel doesn’t know who nominated her for the award, which she learned about a few weeks ago. “My head’s spinning a bit,” she said. “I’m still trying to digest the information.”

She’s a teacher at the school’s Academy of Engineering and Environmental Sciences. Pressel, who’s 39 and lives in Jacksonville, has been in that position since Creekside opened in 2008 in northwest St. Johns County.

As National Geographic puts it, she’s one of “eight global changemakers … who will transform their fields and further our understanding of our world and all that’s in it.”

Among the Emerging Explorers are people such as a wildlife activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a deep-sea biologist from Trinidad and Tobago, and a Chilean photographer and visual storyteller.

Pressel is just the second educator to get the honor over the 18 years of its existence. It comes with a $10,000 prize.

She often involves environmentally minded students in field research at places such as the St. Johns River and Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, as well as at wetlands on the school campus. Students learn about things such as sustainable growth and green building, along with an emphasis on using GSI mapping technologies.

As the National Geographic Society’s announcement says, “She is a leader in career academy education and continues to develop innovative and novel ways to engage students in their community and help them make connections between the natural world and their personal stories.”

Ali Pressel of Creekside High School.
Ali Pressel of Creeksisde High School. Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union

Jule Campbell, 21, is one of Pressel’s former students. Her time at the career academy is what led her to where she is now: starting a master’s degree in envioronmental sustainablity and conservation biology at the University of Central Florida. That’s after getting a degree from the University of Florida in natural resources conservation.

“I am not surprised at all that she got it,” Campbell said of the award. “She is just an amazing teacher and just one of the most important people in my life … She makes it apparent how much she loves what she does. That’s influential to all her students.”

Noah DeDeo, 21, is another of her former students, now a senior at the University of North Florida majoring in coastal and marine biology. He’s chairman of the student board of the North Florida Green Chamber of Commerce and plans to attend graduate school in the environmental field.

That wouldn’t have happened without his time in the career academy.

“I kind of fell in love with it,” he said. “I did it my four years of high school. I got to work at Guana through them, to volunteer at a number of events and explore what I really wanted to do. She really inspired it.”

DeDeo said Pressel would often encourage students to figure things out for themselves, with some gentle nudging and advice when needed. 

If he asked her how to do something, she would smile, then say, “Well, how do you think you should do it?”

He would eventually figure out what needed to be done.

Pressel said she believes in challenging her students, “If you present them with rigor, they’re going to match it,” she said. “They might fight you along the way, but they’ll recognize later how it benefited them.”

Lynda Kelly, Creekside’s career academies program specialist, said Pressel brings out the best in students. 

“If they have a love for the outdoors to start with, Ali just kind of brings it full circle for them,” she said.

Creekside High School teacher Ali Pressel, named one of eight "Emerging Explorers" by the National Geographic Society, often takes students on field research expeditions, such as this one to the Guana reserve.
Creekside High School teacher Ali Pressel, named one of eight “Emerging Explorers” by the National Geographic Society, often takes students on field research expeditions, such as this one to the Guana reserve. Provided by Ali Pressel

Pressel has some connections with the National Geographic Society already. She’s on its teacher advisory council, helping develop online resources for educators and uses National Geographic materials in class. 

She said she’s intent on exposing students to the world beyond school and has struck up partnerships with local engineering firms, the Guana reserve, the St. Johns River Water Management District and ESRI, the GIS mapping organization, among others.

Young people, she said, seem more aware than many of their elders of the environmental challenges facing the world. 

“I think kids are more intuitive than adults are,” she said. “Maybe adults become jaded with too much noise and interruption over their adult lives, but kids, because they’re always curious, always wondering what their place is in the world, finding their sense of autonomy, finding their place in the world — they end up having that connection to nature, asking what are the results of global warming, of plastics we use.”

Tapping into that youthful curiosity is what led her to teaching, she said, and what keeps her there.

“Yeah,” Pressel said. “Adults could learn a lot from kids sometimes.”

Featured image: Ali Pressel, an environmental science teacher at Creekside High School in St. Johns County, was recently named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, only the second educator to be given the award. Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union

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