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Alaina Garza holds a large white check against a backdrop with Texas Science and Engineering Fair logos.
Alaina Garza received the Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award at the 2022 Texas Science and Engineering Fair advisory board dinner on March 26. | Image: Courtesy of Tim Garza

Alaina Garza, a teacher at Clear Creek Independent School District’s Clear Brook High School (CBHS), is the first recipient of the Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award. The award recognizes Texas teachers, sponsors and advocates of the Texas Science and Engineering Fair (TXSEF) who have gone above and beyond their expected responsibilities to serve their constituents, community, colleagues and students in support of the fair. Garza received the award at the TXSEF Advisory Board Dinner at Texas A&M University on March 26, 2022. The Truman T. Bell Extraordinary Service Award included a $1,000 cash prize and an invitation to present a session on how to successfully support students with scientific research from generating an innovative idea to presenting at regional, state, and international science and engineering fairs at the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching.  

Garza, a 16-year classroom veteran, is the first person to receive the award, which was created in memory of Truman T. Bell. Bell was a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and TXSEF, and his 45-plus-year career included university student services, industry human resources, corporate recruiting, public affairs and foundation administration. He worked at Tarleton State University and Texas Tech University before joining ExxonMobil, where he served as the company headquarters’ community relations manager. In that role, he stewarded local community investments as well as diversity and education programs for both the corporation and the ExxonMobil Foundation. Bell also helped influence critical decisions about STEM education programs and initiatives designed to improve career opportunities for women and minorities.   

A natural pathway 

Garza grew up in Leon Springs, Texas, and credits her high school science teacher with honing her early love of science. Well prepared, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio while working part-time in a chiropractic office. 

After graduating, Garza joined H-E-B Pharmacy as a lead tech for seven years, where she discovered her aptitude for training. Yet, she decided to move to Houston to further her education with hopes of pursuing a career in medicine, optometry or pharmacy. 

However, she found that she couldn’t settle on a specific career path as she worked on her master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Houston. “I thought I wanted to do optometry, but after observing (an optometrist) at work, I realized I didn’t thoroughly enjoy that,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” 

Soon, her life changed when she met her future husband in a chemistry class. As their relationship developed, she met his mother, who offered important career advice. “His mom, who had recently retired from teaching, said, ‘You enjoy teaching and tutoring. Why don’t you become a teacher?’” Garza remembered, adding that soon after that conversation, she shifted her coursework to earn a master’s in secondary education and teaching. 

Finding a passion for science 

Now in her 16th year at CBHS, Garza has found her passion — helping the area’s diverse group of students learn to love science. “The more understanding I show for the students and the more enjoyment I show for the content, the more they seem to love science and want to learn,” she said. “I’ve had students come into my class who never enjoyed science in their life, but once they’ve taken the class, it’s something they want to incorporate into their future.” 

During her tenure at CBHS, the educator has instructed many of the offered science classes, including integrated physics and chemistry, honors biology, chemistry, honors chemistry, advanced placement (AP) biology, anatomy and physiology, advanced anatomy and physiology and AP Capstone program. She currently teaches AP biology and AP Capstone Research. 

Garza’s commitment to students doesn’t end when the class bell rings. At the campus level, she supports CBHS students in the school’s science fair and the University Interscholastic League team. She also serves as the sophomore class sponsor and organizer for the TEDx ClearBrookHighSchool event. 

Garza is a member of the scientific research committee for the district and regional science fair and serves as the scientific review co-chair for the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston. In that role, she focuses on ensuring that all science fair projects meet the scientific, safety, ethical and fair standards.  

Over the years, Garza has helped numerous CBHS students succeed at regional, state and international science fairs. However, seeing her students win awards is not her top priority. “What makes her so special is that she does not care whether we advance or not,” said student Vicky Nguyen. “She solely wants her students to learn and explore as much as possible.”  

To that end, Garza also works closely with CBHS’s feeder schools, helping younger students explore science. In addition to mentoring the intermediate school’s robotics team, she brings a group of high school students to CBHS’s two feeder elementary schools twice a month through the Community OutReach for Education in STEM (CORES) program. “The team of high school students designs lessons during school, and then we teach them at the elementary school,” she explained. “Our CORES officers guide our high school students on how to create fun activities so that elementary students can actually understand what they’ll be learning in high school.” 

These activities bring high school concepts such as physics, coding and genetics down to the elementary level. For example, one activity that addressed dominant and recessive genes involved developing a game in which elementary students rolled dice to determine a monster’s genes. Another activity used strawberries to help elementary students understand DNA. “It was so cool for them to figure out that this is what makes a strawberry a strawberry, and this is like what we have in our cells,” Garza said. “These are difficult concepts, and these elementary students understood them.” 

Because of these various efforts, Garza has had a significant influence on students over the years, and many remain engaged with her after graduation through a specific Facebook group. She proudly notes that many report that they have gone on to pursue a science-related career, including becoming scientific researchers and teachers, while others attend medical, nursing or physical therapy school. “It’s great to watch these individuals become their own person,” Garza said. “Whether they go into science or not, I want to help them to become great citizens.”