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Ag educator wins $10K academic coaching award

MOUNTAIN LAKE -- Dedication to science, agriculture and FFA paid off in the form of a $10,000 prize for a Mountain Lake High School teacher this week, but his real reward has always been working with the students.

Thomas Appel, who has taught at Mountain Lake for 30 years, learned Thursday at a school assembly that he had been given the 2011 Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan (WEM) Foundation Outstanding Educator Award for Academic Challenge Coach.

"I was surprised," Appel said. He first realized he might have received the award when he saw the administration at the award ceremony Thursday -- along with his wife, Kelly Appel, who normally doesn't attend those events.

The statewide award, which includes a $10,000 prize, is given each year to two Minnesota teachers participating in academic extracurricular or enrichment activities.

Appel graduated from Heron Lake High School in 1975 and attended Worthington Community College. He received a bachelor's degree in 1979 and a master's degree in 1985 from the University of Minnesota.

In the mid-1990s, he went back to school and earned a life science degree from Minnesota State University Mankato, and has taught both agricultural education and science.

"They go together very, very well. Obviously, in agricultural education there's a lot of biology and life science. The two areas really go pretty much hand in hand," Appel said. "A lot of the subject matter, when it comes to the environment is very parallel."

He enjoys teaching agriculture because it's one of the most diverse disciplines, including everything from production agriculture to horticulture to mechanics.

"It's constantly changing," Appel said. "If folks wish to continue to eat and take care of the land and the soil and the resources, it's going to have to be through agriculture."

FFA, too, is constantly changing, shifting to keep up with the world of modern agriculture.

"The challenge is that things are constantly changing, whether it be in a contest or an event or an activity," Appel said. "The FFA reflects what's going on in agriculture. I don't come close to doing the same thing I did even 10 years ago."

About 75 students participate in FFA at Mountain Lake -- a little more than half of students in the top few grade levels and Appel is the sole advisor.

He gets help from parents and because FFA events are spread out throughout the year, he is able to keep up.

Appel spends about 12 to 20 hours a week working with FFA students.

Though many students tell him they're not going to pursue agriculture, some of them still do -- they get a business degree or an engineering degree, for example, and then work as loan officers or engineers in an agribusiness.

"It doesn't mean you're out in the fields or the hog barn... it's a very, very diverse field, and there are lots of employment opportunities," Appel said.

He encouraged other educators to take a look at the award from the WEM Foundation and the Center for Academic Excellence.