Teacher of the Year makes science real

The only time Carolyn Kelley sits in her chair during this class is the minute it takes to set up the interactive whiteboard that's linked to her computer. On her desk sits the classic science room décor: a blankly staring skull. But that's it for bored looks. Once Ms. Kelley takes her place in front of the 15 high school sophomores seated at tables in a "U" formation, there's no lack of liveliness in the faces looking back.

"How many of you guys eat Mexican food?" the biotechnology teacher asks as she introduces the test they're about to conduct in the lab next door. Just as people react differently to spicy foods, she explains, some bacteria produce acid after eating glucose. If the organism turns red after the solution is added, the test is positive for acid. After a quick round of questions, her charges suit up in white coats, goggles, and blue latex gloves.

Kelley says she takes "the new three-Rs approach" to education – "rigor, relevance, and relationship." It's not just a slogan, which is why people here at the Seacoast School of Technology (SST) say no one was surprised she was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. Described by colleagues as modest and by herself as "a lab geek," the best reward for Kelley seems to be that her students learn to love science.

Everyone from CEOs to members of the National Governors Association is clamoring for better science education to prepare the future workforce for a high-tech world. Last year's release of science scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress didn't bode well: While fourth-graders had improved since 1996, eighth-grade scores were stagnant, and 12th-graders' declined.

As policymakers seek the formula for improved results, they might do well to take a peek into classrooms like Kelley's. She grabs students' attention by connecting her lessons with daily news revolving around biotech issues such as stem cells and forensics. The classroom – inhabited by fish tanks, pictures of exotic frogs, and an inflated green alien sporting a lab coat – practically vibrates with energy. Above each student hangs a unique squiggly model of the protein that represents his or her name translated into DNA code.

"Unfortunately, a lot of students get turned off of science in elementary and middle school, and you just don't see a lot of American students going into science and engineering," Kelley says. "If you can show students how science is so relevant to their lives, they really grasp onto it. I'm graduating students every year that go on to science careers."

They come to her from six regional high schools, spending 90 minutes a day doing work that can earn them college credits. Kelley applied for grants to create a lab that rivals those at research universities.

When Kelley started biotech at SST in 2001 after working in private industry, it was the first of several high-tech programs that turned around an enrollment slump, says Principal Nancy Pierce. With about 99 percent of her students going on to four-year colleges, Kelley has helped eliminate out-of-date perceptions that career and technical schools (formerly known as vocational) are for kids who lag academically.

"The kids just adore her, and she doesn't make it easy on them," Ms. Pierce says. "She doesn't have to give lots of quizzes to check on their knowledge, because she makes it so urgent that they know they need to learn this in order to do what they want to do."

Sharing a lab bench with three classmates, Kaila Phillips pours half of a yellowish liquid into a second test tube. From across the room, Kelley calls out a reminder to pour over the sink, and Kaila quickly moves to comply. "In the beginning, I honestly thought that I wasn't going to like this class," Kaila says, "but about a week into it, I'm like, 'Wow, this is really cool!' I'm all science-y now." She thinks she'll be either a nurse or a pharmacist.

Across the bench, Sean Kelley (no relation) says his teacher "keeps everything exciting and new. She'll put up slide shows of current events, so she relates everything that's going on in the world right now to what we're doing in the lab." When the nation's attention was fixed on E. coli in spinach, "we had it in Petri dishes in front of us," he says. "She trusts us."

The organisms are attenuated and safe for student use, Kelley explains, but to the kids, it's still a motivator. "It makes you grow up just a little bit quicker," says Samantha Pettipost.

The responsibility is paired with a relaxed attitude. "She is really friendly and bubbly and probably the most fun teacher I've ever had," Kaila says. She makes jokes, "sometimes corny ones," adds Kaila's lab partner, Jessor Baugh.

"I wouldn't give anything to the students to work on that I wouldn't enjoy doing," Kelley says. "If you love science, which I do, it's just so easy to make it interesting and pass on that enthusiasm."

Kelley drives home the relevance by involving students in the community. For one project, they met with families affected by Alzheimer's and put together an educational handbook. Another time, they created a biotech exhibit for children at Boston's Museum of Science.

The teens also choose individual research projects. Kaila is surveying local vets about feline leukemia, which has affected her cat. Samantha loves fish, so she's testing their memory with a routine of turning tank lights on before they're fed.

Students at SST also do summer internships to check out potential career paths. People who host Kelley's students frequently tell her that their skills outshine those of many college students. She's recently put up a "Wall of Fame" outside her classroom, showing what former students did for internships – everything from studying genetics to tracing suicide trends with the medical examiner's office – and what they're now studying in college.

Two SST biotech interns have worked with Vaughn Cooper, an assistant professor of microbiology and genetics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. One, a freshman at UNH, still works in Mr. Cooper's lab. "He's one of our best students," Cooper says by phone. In high school, "he was a good student but not one of those blinding all-star students ... but it's clear that the experience he got in [Kelley's] classes ... really lit a fire under him. When he showed up in my lab he started to swim right away."

Marilyn Kellogg, the career adviser at SST, says such internships are integral. "It makes students much more motivated – they have a better sense of what they need to know," she says.

Kelley was called into a surprise assembly at SST last fall to be named the state's teacher of the year, based on a committee's review of nominations from students, teachers, and administrators. Everyone from the superintendent to her husband was in the audience as she was awarded a $3,000 grant. She's already used part of it to buy new equipment for the lab. She'll use her bully pulpit to boost science education in lower grades.

Matthew Kramer was in Kelley's first class at SST. Now he's a junior at UNH, double majoring in microbiology and business. "The unique thing about what she's doing ... is that she starts teaching a lot of high-level procedures that you probably wouldn't learn till you're a junior in college," Mr. Kramer says by phone.

He's ahead of his classmates in the lab because of that, he says, and he found that classes like organic chemistry made a lot more sense because he could see how the information would be applied. "You absorb the knowledge a lot better."

Kramer hopes someday to start his own biotech company. If he does, you can be sure that fact will be up on Kelley's Wall of Fame faster than you can say "DNA."

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