2011 NMAS Outstanding Science Teacher Awards
Harry F. Pomeroy, Jr. Awards Chairman, NMAS
Barbara Jo Mullis
Los Alamos Middle School Los Alamos, New Mexico
I am Barbara Jo Mullis, and I have the most terrific job in the world because I am an 8th grade physical science teacher. After teaching 12 years in elementary special education and 19 years in high school chem- istry, I discovered a well-kept secret in education: middle school is the best! Thirteen-year-olds are amazing people. I am so blessed to be in my 9th year as a Hawk at Los Alamos Middle School.
I did not set out to be a teacher of any kind. My first degree, a BS in anthropology from Bucknell University, was useless for getting a job but I learned the joy of pursuing what I loved. I still needed a job, so the next degree was an M. Ed. in elementary special education from Clemson University. The job became a career and then a calling. A funny thing about a calling is that regardless of your intentions, it is what you are…what you have to do…what you love. I had fallen in love with teach- ing. Over time, I was lured into science by tuition-free graduate hours and fellowships. So, by 1983, I was a full-fledged science teacher. Although, it took a move to New Mexico to earn my final degree, a Mas- ter of Science Teaching from New Mexico Tech.
At LAMS, I coach the Department of Energy Science Bowl Team and the Knowledge Master Team. Over the years, each of these teams has been nationally ranked numerous times. This, of course, is actually due to the students‘ willingness to study, practice and encourage each other. At LAMS, I get to challenge the gifted kids and encourage the chal- lenged kids. So I am blending my training in special education and sci- ence. Also, I won a grant and used it to create a cross-curricular unit on energy resources that brought dozens of new books into our library and that allows students to work in teams to explore and critique the status of eight traditional and alternative energies every year. I have earned and maintained certification as a National Board Teacher in young adult sci- ence, which has opened the door to serve on committees that shape sci- ence education in broader ways. I worked with the Public Education Department to develop questions for the SBA test. At the district level, I am a middle school representative on the committee that will make rec- ommendations for the new textbook adoption this spring. And at my school site, I am currently serving on the architectural review committee to plan the science rooms of our new building.
In class, I have an opportunity every day to communicate what learning about science can do to enrich my students’ lives. Success with hands-on activities empowers young people and gives them the confidence to keep trying when the concepts get harder. My students learn to use evidence to make decisions not just as a classroom exercise but also as a life skill. Together we experience the relevance of science to big things like the environment and careers, and to small things like forces in skate board- ing and the wonders of nail polish remover. My hope is that science adventures in the 8th grade will inspire students to pursue STEM goals for a sustainable future.
Thank you so much for the honor of being recognized as an Outstanding Science Teacher. It is gratifying to have professional scientists acknowl- edge the role of us pedagogues. And thank you to my principal, Rex Kilburn, for nominating me. It is rewarding to know that someone notic- es the long nights grading piles of papers and the hours after class setting up labs.
Puesta del Sol Elementary School Rio Rancho, New Mexico
I was asked to provide a biographical sketch of how I became a teacher and how and why I teach science the way I do. Honestly, I never really gave my teaching methods that much thought before; I just do what comes natural. I believe students should be taught foundational skills in whatever they are learning, and then be exposed to as many opportunities as possible to apply that knowledge on real life problems, and if you can incorporate hands-on activities in this process, just stand back and watch the “magic.”
Reflecting on the journey that brought me to the teaching profes- sion made me realize that my whole life has been a preparation for my becoming a science teacher. For starters, I was always a very curious kid and was fascinated with figuring out how everything worked. For example, when I was ten years old I took my mother’s brand new toaster apart because I needed to understand how it knew when to pop the toast up when it cooked. Unfortunately, it would not be until years later that I truly under- stood how a bimetal switch worked, but I did learn what happens when you don’t have proper funding for your science experiements, and how many lawns you have to mow to replace a toaster.
My father learned auto mechanics in the Army, and for awhile he sold tools. My grandfather was a contractor, and built houses. This gave me access to just about every tool needed to build or take apart anything I could find. For supplies I often relied on my uncles who were “garbage men.” Much to my mothers dismay, they provided me all the raw material a budding scientist could ever want. Not surprisingly, at a very early age I had developed an incredible “common sense” understanding of how things in the physical world worked around me, but my formal education would not come so easily.
I was never what you would call a “natural” student. My teachers rarely understood me because I did not fit the mold of a standard student, but on occasion I would find a teacher who not only undestood me, but encouraged my method of learning.These teachers were often my shop and science teachers. I endured History and English classes, but I lived for any- thing related to Science or Math.
Ironically, it wa during a 20 year detour called the Marine Corps, that I learned the value of “hands-on” teaching. The Marine Corps is an organization that understands this concept very well. They also provided me an opportunity to attend and graduate from college with, of course, a science degree. Half way through my career in the Corps, I received a com- mission and became an officer. It was during this part of my career that I began to realize how much I enjoyed training younger Marines, and any- thing related to teaching. My final assignment before retiring was as the Marine Officer Instructor at UNM. I wasn’t teaching science, but I was teaching.
My wife had been working as an educational assistant for several years. Teaching in public school seemed the perfect idea for a second career, and would allow my wife and me to have similar schedules. While at UNM and with the help from the Troops to Teachers Program, I studied for and earned my teaching license and a Masters in Elementary Education. My first job was teaching 7th and 8th grade science at Santo Domingo Middle School in Bernalillo. I loved the science you get to teach in middle school, but wanted a closer relationship with students than seeing them for 50 minutes a day. when the opportunity opened up for me to teach closer to home at Puesta del Sol Elementary School, I jumped at the chance.
Even though I teach all subjects in elementary school, my pas- sion is still science. I truly believe that all students, especially at the ele- mentary level should be exposed to “real” science, not just science from a book. As soon as I arrived at Puesta I sponsored a Science Club, which led to the need to build a sci- ence lab. Realizing that there is so much science to be learned outdoors in NM, I wrote a grant to build an Outdoor Leearnng Center (OLC), an extension of our lab. In our OLC we are using solar and wind generators to power our greenhouse and to teach students about alternative energy production. I wrote a grant to build a wind tunnel. Of course our students could learn about making electricity from the wind out of a book; however, let me assure you that when we build model wind generators and exper- iment with them inside our “real” wind tunnel in our “real” sci- ence lab, I have everyone’s undivided attention. This is why I do what I do, and teach the way I teach, it works and it is fun.
Lastly, it would be wrong to accept this award without making it perfectly clear that my success is a direct result of the amazing team of people who believe in me and let me dream so big. Simply put, I could not be the teacher I am without the lov- ing support of my wife and family, the support of my Principals and my School District, the support of big and small businesses that provide us with grants, and the support and encouragment of so many of my colleagues. Probably most important of all was the impact of the extraordinary teachers in my past that saw in me things I did not always see in myself.