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Disney Channel films 'eco-nun' in her element

Sister Ellen Callaghan's 15 minutes of fame never seem to end.

Yesterday, the energetic science teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School -- dubbed the "eco-nun" by her students -- was the focus of a Disney Channel film crew for a five-minute profile to be aired in December.

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The 54-year-old Franciscan nun was chosen as one of 60 outstanding teachers in the country to be honored by the Walt Disney Co.

But that's just the most current accolade.

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Last month, Sister Ellen met first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Science that carried a $7,500 grant.

A few weeks ago, she was the only area high school teacher to receive the Cardinal's Award for Teaching Excellence in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The recognition earned her $1,000 and Mount Carmel High $500.

"She has brought a lot of fame to Mount Carmel," said Kathleen Sipes, principal of the 188-student Catholic high school in Essex-Middle River. "She's very dedicated to the work she does and to her students. Her excitement is caught by other people."

And that's exactly what the Disney staff saw as they trailed Sister Ellen from her biology and health classes at Mount Carmel to nearby Cox's Point, a small park on Back River where students planted marsh grasses and cleaned up debris.

Sister Ellen adopted the stretch of Baltimore County shoreline a few years ago to teach her classes about the environment.

"It's a way to explain the bay to them," she said. "A high percentage learn by doing."

Kelly Leisey, a 17-year-old Mount Carmel senior, credited Sister Ellen with her interest in recycling. "She's really into the environment. . . . I never paid much attention to it before," she said.

Sister Ellen's efforts also were noticed in 1992 when she was chosen as one of nine "earth teachers" from across the country by Time magazine and the Amway Corp. She received $10,000 and her photo appeared in the national publication.

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So far, she's used a portion of her award money for a top-of-the-line classroom computer. Yesterday, her anatomy students used it to test their blood pressure as the photographer and sound man from Disney hovered nearby.

"She can show off her prom fingernail job," Sister Ellen teased one student who had plunged her hand into ice water for an experiment.

But the bright lights and camera didn't seem to deter the students, or their teacher, from their lessons.

"She doesn't even notice us," said producer Jerry Hughes, who will edit about eight hours of tape for the brief cable TV vignette.

But Sister Ellen, who has been at Mount Carmel for 14 of her 34 teaching years, wasn't quite as blase about the hoopla.

"You have no idea," she laughed about her seeming composure. "I have the power of prayer. I have an army behind me."

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But whatever the source of her strength, the students followed their leader.

"It's fun," said 18-year-old senior Lisa Rhoden after demonstrating infant cardiopulmonary resuscitation. "I don't like cameras that much, but once I got used to it, it was like a regular class."

That's how the six classes that Sister Ellen teaches each day proceeded. DNA models were built with tiny plastic sticks, oral reports on the Ebola virus were given, and tasks such as designing a way to cushion a raw egg in a cardboard box were given.

"She's very, very hands on," said Mount Carmel Spanish teacher Teri Wilkins, a former student of Sister Ellen at Catholic High School in East Baltimore. "She was great then. As she progresses, she keeps getting better and better."


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