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Science teacher wins award Educator uses energetic approach in, out of classroom


Claudia Lewis is the kind of science teacher who reads about a famous expedition three-quarters of a mile deep into the Earth, and then decides reading about it isn't enough. A field trip into the natural abyss in Mexicoeer Bill Stone works.

That illustrates Ms. Lewis' "just do it" style of teaching, one of several reasons she won this year's award for excellence in secondary teaching from the Maryland Association of Science Teachers. She will receive her award at the state convention in Baltimore next month.

"She just has boundless energy and she's willing to take on anything," said Alan DeGennaro, science department chairman at Westminster High. He nominated Ms. Lewis for the award. He won it two years ago.

Ms. Lewis has a voracious appetite for reading science news and bringing it into the classroom and to fellow teachers, Mr. DeGennaro said.

"She has to be an incredibly widely read person," he said.

And whether her students are the honors group, average or special education, he said, if you walk into her classroom, you will find students working on real science -- DNA, studying if there is life on Mars.

"If you would go into my kids' freezers now, you would find frozen spiders," Ms. Lewis said.

The 10th-grade biology students are storing the spiders for study later this year. She asked them to start collecting them now, before the weather gets cold and they're harder to find. Some of the frozen arachnids will even come back to life when they thaw, she said.

This week, students are learning a basic tool of scientific research: how to set up an experiment with a control group, using live meal worms.

For the meal worm experiment, Ms. Lewis gave each student a petri dish of 10 squirming meal worms to measure with a ruler and weigh on a triple-beam balance.

Half the meal worms went into a container of oats and a piece of apple. The other half went into a slightly different condition, to be determined by the student. After a while, the worms will be weighed and measured again, to see what effect the varied conditions have on them.

Throughout her science lessons are themes that might be found in social studies -- such as how the potato, indigenous to South America, wound up as Ireland's main crop and the source of Russia's favorite liquor. Or how noodles went from Asia to Italy.

"We do a lot of map work," she said. "If we talk about evolution and Darwin, we map the Galapagos."

In a unit on native American plants and crops, she included recipes for fried squash blossoms, pumpkin soup and steamed fiddlehead ferns.

She's a veteran teacher -- she has to think about how long. Twenty-seven years, she figured. The first eight were spent as a lab instructor at University of Maryland Baltimore County, and at Westminster High since 1974.

She said she's not afraid to call anyone to speak to her classes.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," she said.

Now, she's trying to get Nancy Jaax, who did pioneering work on the Ebola virus at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

When Ms. Lewis wanted to take her students to hear Dr. Stone at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, where he works, officials there told her that the world-famous scientist was very busy, and didn't usually talk to high school groups. They couldn't count on his being there, but she took a chance, figuring that either way, the students would see other things at the lab.

"So I scheduled the field trip for Dec. 19, thinking he'd be close to home for the holidays," Ms. Lewis said. "Sure enough, he was close to home."

He was, and the students were fascinated.

The combination of planning and good luck returns this year. Ms. Lewis and the students in her biology club plan an annual community outreach event. She knew that Galileo, the NASA spacecraft, was scheduled to reach Jupiter in December, six years after it was launched.

She took a chance and booked the high school auditorium for Dec. 8, a Friday night. People of all ages are expected to attend to get a quick lesson on Galileo, and chart its course. It wasn't until after she booked the auditorium that Ms. Lewis found that Galileo will reach its destination the day before her presentation.

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