Hannibal, Mo., science teacher honored by national organization

Hannibal High School Brenda Hallbauer accepts the Health Physics Society’s Geoffrey G. Eichholz Outstanding Science Teacher Award from past president Armin Ansari during the society’s conference in Baltimore on July 15. (Photo courtesy of Casper Sun)
Posted: Aug. 8, 2014 5:24 pm Updated: Aug. 22, 2014 6:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Hannibal High School teacher Brenda Hallbauer believes the more her students know about nuclear science, the more at ease they'll be during their next X-ray or their next drive past a nuclear power plant.

The biology, forensics and nuclear science teacher developed a semesterlong class that aims to show them uses for radiation beyond the warheads seen on TV or in movies, such as power generation to medical applications.

"Any exposure someone has to knowledge -- even if it's at a very basic level -- when you run across it later, it's kind of a comfort knowing something about it. It's nowhere near as scary," she said.

Hallbauer's approach caught the attention of the Health Physics Society, a national radiation safety group made up of scientists, educators and medical professionals.

She and Florida instructor Joshua Mocherman were honored with the Geoffrey G. Eichholz Outstanding Science Teacher Award at the organization's national conference in Baltimore in July. The award is presented to educators who broach radiation safety and other related topics in their classrooms -- something Hallbauer has done since 2006. Hallbauer's colleagues at the University of Missouri, also members of the Greater St. Louis chapter of HPS, nominated her, and the national group flew her out for the awards banquet and conference.

"As a teacher, I have never felt as appreciated for what I do than I did out there," she said.

The society also donated $750 to Hannibal High School, which Hallbauer says she'll use to buy dry-erase boards for her classroom.

However, some of Hallbauer's curricula takes her students outside of those four walls. They visit the university's research reactor each semester to watch it in action, and they'll go to Callaway Nuclear Power Plant when they can.

Class material also covers radiation safety. For example, Hallbauer teaches "time, distance and shielding," a stop-drop-and-roll mantra that reminds students to reduce their time near a radioactive source, increase their distance and put something between them and whatever is producing the radiation. Hallbauer also noted she hopes to include more about handling small accidents in future semesters.

"The more you know, the better choices you make and the less apprehensive you are when the terminology comes up," she said.

Some of Hallbauer's former students have taken it a step further. Hallbauer said one former student is studying health physics at Linn State Technical College, while others have tested into military nuclear programs off of the general knowledge they've gained. That's good, Hallbauer said, as it's estimated 50 percent to 60 percent of professionals in the field are expected to retire within the next decade.

"This is a huge need for young people to get into this area," she said. "That's something I really want to relay to my students."

Hallbauer, who graduated from Illinois State University in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in animal science, might have done the same.

"If someone would've steered me in that direction when I was back in my college days, I probably would've gone into it," she said.