2012 NMAS Outstanding Science Teacher Awards

Harry F. Pomeroy, Jr. Education Awards Chairman, NMAS

NMAS recognized the 2012 outstanding New Mexico science teachers at the annual meeting held in December last year. The teachers were given an award plaque from the Academy, cash awards contrbuted by the American Chemical Society, and class- room materials from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

This annual award has been given by the NMAS since 1968. Nominations are open to all science and math teachers in New Mexico. Prior to 1990, annual awards were given to one K-12 teacher and one post-secondary instructor. Since 1990, awards are given to two K-12 teachers, one from elementary-middle school and one from high school level science.

Vickie Funk-Sheley
Tibbetts Middle School, Farmington, New Mexico

I am a 6th grade science teacher at Tibbetts Middle School in Farmington, New Mexico. I have been a teacher in Farmington for 15 years, having taught science for grades 5-8, all at Title 1 schools. I am also an adjunct instructor for the University of New Mexico‘s teacher education program, and have been for four years now. I have written several grants and won awards throughout my career, but none so prestigious as this, and it truly is an honor to me to be recognized by my peers.

I first began my hands-on experience with science when I was one year old, so I am told. I would sit in the yard and turn rocks over, methodically exam- ining roly-polies one by one and then very carefully taste them, much to my mother’s horror. By age 3, I had graduated to fireflies, beetles, and grasshop- pers, only by then, had lost my desire to qualitatively observe using taste. At age 4, I could often be found outside with my grandmother, barefoot and caked in mud, assisting her with transplanting flowers one minute and climbing as high as I could in one of her many overgrown trees the next minute. When I was around 8 years old, my mother bought a set of medical encyclopedias from a door to door salesman, that became my main source of entertainment for hours at a time over the next few years…my favorite being the human body overlays of bone, muscle, nerve, blood vessels, and skin…and so continued my love and wonder for the world around me.

Science was always a favorite subject in school, for me. I took every chemis- try, physics, and biology class I could in high school. Though I started out pre-med in college, I eventually found myself in the teacher education pro- gram at UNM, studying to become a science teacher, where I earned a BS in education, as well as an MA in curriculum development. In education, there is a saying that “you teach in the manner that you were taught”, and many of my science teachers had taught hands-on labs, which I enjoyed and excelled at. I often attribute this to the reason I teach with a very hands-on approach, balanced with an emphasis on reading comprehension, academic writing, and technology…and I most definitely also attribute my hands-on approach to my childhood adventures of exploration and wonder, in hopes of instilling that same sense of wonder in my students.

That is why my favorite days to teach are my lab days, and I schedule as many as I possibly can. I plan labs that are gooey, and messy, and that always have a surprise to them so that students truly have to hypothesize without knowing the outcome. It is always a reward for me to see their smiles and enthusiasm for science and I love to hear that science is their favorite subject, especially when they come back to see me as college stu- dents and tell me that they are science majors.

Gail Silva
Piedra Vista High School, Farmington, New Mexico

It is an honor just to be considered for this award, much less one of the recip- ients. I‘ve been a teacher in the Farmington District for 15 years, 10 years at Hermosa Middle School and 5 at Piedra Vista High School. I am married to Hud Silva and have three children, my stepdaughter Corrie who is 15, son Joseph, 6, and Porter who is about to turn five. While I go to work to teach every day, I come home to “learn” every night. My husband and I laugh every night as we get to view the world through the eyes of our children. I was a teacher first, before I became a parent. Being a parent has given me a whole new appreciation for my student’s lives and their parents.

Twenty years ago if you told me I was even going to be a science teacher I would have said you were crazy. Every year one of my students asks me “what made you want to be a science teacher”. I tell them it is the best deci- sion I never thought I‘d make. I originally went to college, at NMSU, intent on being a physical therapist. I was three years in to a pre-med Biology degree when I started to volunteer in the field. I wish that I had tried it soon- er because I soon discovered that it was not the field for me. I was too far in to my Biology degree not to finish. In the mean time I was in the need of a job that was flexible enough to work around my school schedule. My sister, a kindergarten teacher, suggested subbing. I decided to give it a try. From my first day in the classroom I felt “at home”. I continued subbing and found that my personality was best suited for the older students. Upon com- pletion of my Bachelor’s degree I decided to stay and get a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction, specializing in secondary science.

To be honest, the only reason that I chose secondary science was because I already had the necessary science credits. I had not yet developed a passion for teaching the subject. It was not until I did my student teaching with Susan Brown, in her 8th grade classroom, at Sierra Middle School that I real- ized how exciting the subject could be for students, and for the teacher. She had students, from every walk of life, “experiencing” science. As I reflected on how I wanted my classroom to look, I knew that it would be one where students dived in, feet first, in to the world of science. I was raised in an era where science was big words in a textbook. Susan taught me that it could be so much more for students. Along with the students I was learning to teach, I realized that I had been “surrounded” by science my whole life, and loved it. It was just never referred to as “science”.

Being raised in an agricultural environment I was immersed in science from a very young age. I realize now that raising show animals for 4-H was a 10 year long “science fair” project. In middle school and high school sports became my passion. That was what led me to want to pursue physical thera- py. I loved learning about how the body works. Now, as a teacher, I try to have students make these connections with their own worlds. More than anything I try to convince my students that science is “accessible” to every single one of them and that it is so much more than just big words in a text- book. Science surrounds them every day, in every aspect of their lives.

As I continue to teach, my appreciation for science grows. I continue to learn about the world around me. Maybe it is age that has allowed me to slow down and enjoy the beauty in the complexity of a living “system”. Teaching Biology has opened up my curiosity for the subject of genetics. When taking genetics in college I recall that lining up letters in Punnett Squares seemed like Greek to me. As I have read and learned more about the history of Genetics it has opened up a whole new appreciation for the subject. I share bits and pieces of my readings with my students, hoping to spark the same curiosity in them. I‘ve been able to allow my students to experience genetics through the help of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program. Students are able to extract and study their own DNA using all of the equipment that a scientist working in the field would use.

My 15 years of teaching and being a science fair spon- sor have flown by faster that I ever thought imaginable. There is one word I’ve never used to describe my life as a science teacher, “boring”. In these years students have never ceased to amaze me. Given the chance, their ingenuity will impress. My best days in the class- room were ones in which I sit back and watch my stu- dents try to figure out a problem without my help. I have learned far more from them then they have from me. The most important lessons they have taught me are that the most important thing you wear to school is a smile and a good sense of humor. Some people worry about their future being in the hands of our young people. I am not. The curiosity my 4 year old displays examining a pill bug in the backyard is still present in our high school students, we just need to give them the chance to explore.The valuable lessons of science are also valuable life lessons; hard work, perseverance, critical thinking, problem solving. These are lessons that I want my students to learn.