As he watched the flood waters rise during Hurricane Harvey, St. Thomas science teacher Philip Cuneo had a brain storm about how to make something positive come out of this catastrophe.
“I was thinking about how what we were living through could be turned into a teachable moment. I knew we couldn’t just return to school and say, ‘Ok . . . here’s where we left off.’ I knew the kids would be shaken. Even those that didn’t take on water knew someone who did. The boys would be hurting to various degrees, and talking is a good way to heal. So I began creating a unit for environmental science about storms, particularly hurricanes.”
Cuneo reached out to his colleagues at Katy Prairie Conservancy and West Side High School, who all had similar ideas. Together they developed lesson plans for a unit on hurricanes and they made a video to share with other science teachers.
Instigating collaboration with other scientists in the Houston community is something he has been doing throughout his 27-year career at St. Thomas. Cuneo has always been the kind of teacher who advocates going outside and “discovering science.”
“Science is inherent in the human experience of the world. I don’t want my students ‘doing’ science for 50 minutes within the confines of four walls.”
As a Texas Master Naturalist, Cuneo has been very involved with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Katy Prairie Conservancy and Buffalo Bayou Preservation Association, organizations whose projects have provided fascinating field experiences for STH students.
Over the years, they have monitored water quality along Spring Creek; planted prairie specimens in Herman Park; established a pocket prairie along McGregor Drive and another one along Buffalo Bayou in a collaboration with University of St. Thomas faculty and students.
There were also legendary field experiences of Cuneo’s creation: the “insect project” and the “road kill project.”
“Back in the early ‘90s, I asked students to collect fifty insect specimens representing ten orders. They mounted and identified them down to the family name. I remember showing them how to contrive an insect net out of an old pair of panty hose and a mop handle,” Cuneo recalled. “That was also my first introduction to the Katy Prairie. In the afternoons, would drive out Clay road until it was in fact a clay road”
“For the road kill project, students had to collect a carcass and boil it down to the bones: coyote, bobcat, raccoon, fox. Then they reassembled them using hot glue. Our biology lab is full of skeletons,” Cuneo explained. “I invited an A & M professor to see our student-comprised collections and he was astounded. He said it was a first-year Veterinary School project. I told him that was a St. Thomas caliber education.”
For Cuneo, science has always been about experiences in nature and the innate inquisitiveness that sets us apart from lower animals.
“There is only so much science between the covers of a text book. I want to nurture, if not scientists, then at least scientific inquisitiveness that the individual engages in beyond the classroom, beyond high school, beyond academia and in their lives as persons.”
Catholic. Basilian. Teaching Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge since 1900.