Today@Sam Article

SHSU's Geography Power Couple Earns National Teaching Award

Jan. 12, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins

Sam Houston State University’s John Strait and Ava Fujimoto-Strait received the 2023 American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Distinguished Teaching Honor, the highest distinction one can receive in geography, for their joint teaching, mentoring and pedagogical accomplishments. The award is traditionally presented to one individual, but was awarded to the couple based on their collaborative efforts to uniquely educate their students. AAG main photo

“Individually, John and Ava are great ambassadors for geography,” said Pat Harris, chair of SHSU’s Department of Environmental and Geosciences. “It is hard to talk about one without talking about the other because their courses and teaching styles are so intertwined.”

The duo stood out from the pack thanks to their immersive field courses, which they have coordinated since arriving at SHSU in 2006 and have given countless students unforgettable, hands-on experiences in places such as the Mississippi Delta, Hawaii, Spain, Italy and Morocco. AAG described their instructional methods as “innovative, engaging and student-centered.”

The couple was originally nominated jointly for the award by a former graduate school colleague, but received a plethora of support from others, including former students.

“Once the nomination came through, we had faculty and peers we volunteer with write letters, as well as students,” Fujimoto-Strait said. “We had some from students who went on to graduate school and some in the professional world, which was nice. It is a privilege to be a teacher and to be a part of a student’s journey. You get them at that point in their life when they are finding out what they want to do and what they are passionate about.”

The origin of the field courses dates back to the couple’s days at Louisiana Tech, where Strait first implemented his course on the Mississippi Delta. The course, unofficially dubbed “Race, Blues, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” uses music and culture to explore a host of topics that pertain to cultural geography. SHSU was highly interested in continuing his work in the course when he was hired in 2006. It remains the most consistent field course offered, but was only the beginning.

“I pitched the idea to our chair about a Hawaii field course,” said Fujimoto-Strait, who is from Hawaii and joined Strait in the department in 2007 after the birth of their second child. “We offered it that first year and it was super popular, so we have been able to offer it since.”

The Hawaii field course, which takes place primarily on the main island, examines environmental as well as cultural diversity. The program has only expanded since with trips to new locations and aspirations to add Portugal to that list. The typical field course lasts about 10 days with all of the time being spent with their students.

“You get to know them on a more personal level, and we all have collective memories of this learning experience together,” Fujimoto-Strait said on the connections made with students on the trips. “We have been lucky to have amazing students that make these experiences memorable, so much so, that we keep going out in the field with them.”

“These transformative travel experiences, in conjunction with field-based activities, incorporated within their traditional in-class courses, directly immerse students into relevant subject matter, ultimately creating strong bonds and facilitating a passion for geographic inquiry,” stated AAG’s press release.

Fujimoto-Strait has received multiple teaching awards for her efforts, including SHSU’s Staff Excellence Award in 2019 and the Adjunct Faculty Teaching Excellence Award in 2014.

“There are a lot of big geography programs out there, so to have ours highlighted like this is nice,” Fujimoto-Strait said. “We have wonderful faculty in both geography and geology in our department. It really is a diverse program with many faculty members working on grants, writing books, research articles and taking students out into the field. Hopefully, this will bring attention to our department and all that we do.”

Along with his Mississippi Delta course, Strait shares his musical expertise and place-based pedagogies in summer teacher workshops and institutes, including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a summer K-12 teacher institute hosted by the Mississippi Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. Since 2008, his lectures and field endeavors at this institute, entitled The Most Southern Place on Earth, have been exceptionally well-received and highly praised by participating teachers from private and public institutions across the country. 

“I am very humbled and extremely honored to receive this award from the AAG,” Strait said. “I am so thankful to have friends and colleagues that would nominate us for such an award. It’s a blessing to know that such people, particularly the former students that help make it happen, see value in our teaching endeavors. Most importantly, I am especially honored to share such an award with a person that I not only care about deeply, but for whom I know has set the highest bar when it comes to all things involved with teaching”

Strait and Fujimoto-Strait’s co-authored 2017 paper in “The Geography Teacher”, which focused on the cultural and environmental diversity across Hawaii through field-based learning, was recognized by the National Council for Geographic Education as the year’s “Best Content” article.

They both have been contributing faculty on the SHSU-directed Pacific Undergraduate Research Experience in Mathematics, an NSF-funded academic program based in Hawaii designed to increase the representation of Pacific Islanders in STEM-based degree paths. More recently, with other SHSU geography faculty, they received a National Geographic Society grant entitled Building an Engaging Place-Based Geography Community in Metro Houston. This endeavor entailed developing workshops with K-12 educators to demonstrate how place-based field endeavors, combined with the use of geospatial technologies, can enhance student learning and engagement and increase interest in higher education among under-represented communities across Houston. They also serve as mentors and academic advisors for numerous students and teachers.

Strait and Fujimoto-Strait, along with other AAG winners, will be honored at the organization’s annual meeting in Denver at the end of March.

The couple has two children and will celebrate 23 years of marriage in June. Appropriately, they plan to spend their anniversary on a field course with their students.

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