Undersea educator wins Disney teaching honors

Monday, October 8, 2001

Karen Stiles knows scuba tanks as well as she does a blackboard or textbook, and is as comfortable on the ocean-bottom reefs off the Florida Keys as she is on the computer keys in a classroom.

Stiles, the daughter of Lois Stiles and step-daughter of Pat Rydell of Storm Lake, is among 35 teachers from across the U.S. named as the Walt Disney Company's American Teacher honorees for 2001. She was chosen from a field of more than 11,000 teacher nominees cited for their educational talent and commitment to the teaching profession.

Stiles teaches at the Des Moines Central Campus for exceptional students, where she specializes in marine biology education. Each spring, she takes 50-60 students on a 17-day camping ecology trip.

The prestigious honor is accompanied by an award of $10,000 and a $5,000 gift to the honoree's school to assist with professional development of its educators.

Stiles, 50, has been teaching in Des Moines for 17 of her 28 years in the career, and offering her study trips for nearly two decades. Her mother helps with the complicated scheduling for the trips, and her stepfather assists with the fundraising, both traveling to Des Moines regularly to work with the project.

Stiles was featured in the Des Moines Register Metro section this week. In that article, Central Campus director Gary McClanahan said she is an exceptional educator. "The truly great instructors are the ones who love what they do and convey that... that's when the lights turn on and excitement happens and kids become engaged in learning. That's what Dr. Stiles is able to do."

Students raise their own funds to pay for the trips. They work their way down the gulf coast of Florida to the Keys, doing scuba and snorkel dives along the way, and exploring environments from salt marshes to cypress swamps. They camp out wherever they can, sometimes on Army or Air Force bases. Do to the intense learning experiences of Stiles trips, the students can often earn advance college credits.

"It's exciting to share with students a world I love," Stiles told The Register.

While her enthusiasm for the undersea world is infectious to her students, she is also a strict taskmaster.

"On her trips, there is no smoking or drinking or drugs allowed, and no inappropriate fraternization. Students are not allowed to swear, and lights out at 10 p.m. in enforced. Students have to sign a contract that if they break rules, they go back home on the first plane, at their parents' expense," her stepfather said.

Her teaching has made such an impact that several of her former students have gone on to careers with marine life parks or other environmental fields. Several of them return each year to accompany their former teacher on her trips to assist with a new generation of Iowa teen explorers.

"She has really met her calling when it comes to being a teacher," said Leisa Wagner, a parent of one of her students, in The Register's profile. "It's just honestly the most wonderful experience."

Stiles is a former Iowa Teacher of the Year, and has won many other honors for her education work. She is a graduate of Iowa State University.

Stiles will attend a Disney gala for the honored teachers in Los Angeles this November. At that time, ten finalists and a national teacher of the year will be announced.

She will return just in time to start working on her next diving education trip, with the organizational skills of her mother at her side. Lois Stiles is a retired ISU Extension professional, and works as a volunteer with the Storm Lake United Methodist Church when she isn't working out the logistics of sending five dozen Iowa kids under the sea.

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