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Seth Keene first plans his lessons by looking at real-world applications for the material at hand.

Scatter plots and correlations, for example, are used by Netflix to recommend new movies and by eHarmony to pair potential partners.

Tate Helfenstein, a Rapid City Stevens High School student, said he can use math to safely fell trees for his job with his father's lumber company. He took his first class with Keene his sophomore year.

"Up to that point, I thought math was the worst. But when I had Keene as a teacher, math became more of a fun thing to do," said Helfenstein, 18.

Keene, 44, was recognized for his work this year, his seventh at Stevens, when the Rapid City Public School Foundation named him the district's teacher of the year. He received a check for $1,000 with the the award, which was the first one the foundation gave out since putting the program on hiatus five years ago.

The recognition puts Keene in the running for regional and state teacher of the year awards, which are managed by the South Dakota Department of Education.

"My first reaction when I got the call that I won the award for the district was that of relief," Keene said. "So many other teachers in my department and in this school were worthy of a nomination or the award themselves that I really felt like if I didn't win for the whole district, there were so many people at Stevens who could have."

Now, Keene said, he feels a pressure to continue representing his colleagues well.

Originally from Deadwood, Keene has taught for 18 years in a career that included stops in Minnesota, St. Thomas More High School and at other Rapid City schools. Two of his children graduated from the Rapid City school district, where his youngest daughter still attends.

He is married to Barb Keene, who serves as operations manager for the Black Hills Area Community Foundation.

Keene teaches classes in statistics, probability and remedial math at Stevens, and this year is piloting the school's first Advanced Placement Statistics course.

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"Statistics is my true passion because it's what you use every day," Keene explained.

After graduating from Lead-Deadwood High School in 1992, Keene went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame. It was in college that he discovered his passion for teaching, having tutored several of his classmates.

"As we worked, I understood the material better, and as we worked, I got a lot of joy out of seeing that they understood it," he said. "I knew right then that that was the path that I wanted to take."

Keene worked in retail and in banking after college before earning his state alternative teaching certificate. Those experiences, he said, drove home some of the practical applications for mathematics that he uses to engage students today.

"Seth’s passion for students' learning is what I believe is really something that makes him a great educator," Stevens Principal John Julius said. "He really works hard to connect with students, develop relationships and figure out ways that he can work on his craft to provide valuable learning opportunities."

Outside of the classroom, Keene serves as coordinator for the Black Hills MathCounts competitive program and as adviser for the Stevens' cycling club, which takes weekly trips to Hansen-Larsen Memorial Park and Skyline Wilderness Park. He's been at the forefront of an effort to redevelop Raider Park, which sits across from Stevens and is owned by the district, into a multi-use trail and green space.

It's Keene's hope that the space will not only be used for athletics but education as well. Agricultural classes will help decide which trees will be planted there, he said, and science classes will be able to study animal and plant life outdoors.

A nonprofit organized by the friends and family of Tom Pfeifle, the late Stevens graduate for whom the trails are named, has already raised $70,000 for the project, which is entirely donation driven. Keene said there are plans to apply for additional grant funding.

"The group of teachers who are kind of leading this had the opportunity to work with Tom, so for us it’s really kind of a special, personal thing as well,” he said.

Keene's colleagues are part of what he said makes working at Stevens special. Their commitment to trying new things for their students, he said, is second to none.

“As long as I’m in education, this is where I’ll be,” Keene said.

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