Science teacher Barbara A. Johnson is always ready when pupils hit her with the inevitable question after a lesson about DNA, chemistry or the metric system: "Mrs. Johnson, why do we have to know this stuff?"
The veteran teacher has an answer, because she always has another question in the back of her mind.
"How do you teach what your county says and make it meaningful and relevant for students?" asked Johnson, 52, who has taught science at Pasadena's Chesapeake Bay Middle School for most of her two decades in the Anne Arundel public school system.
"When they have to vote on whether we should allow cloning or whether we should allow food companies to irradiate, unless these kids have an understanding of that, they're not going to be able to make intelligent decisions as adults," she said.
In recognition of Johnson's talent for making real-world connections in her science classes and her commitment to teaching, the Maryland Association of Science Teachers honored her last week with its award for instructional excellence in middle school education.
"As a science educator, she does the best lessons that I can imagine. It's always hands-on learning and she's always updating her repertoire," said Dan Sheckells, association president. .
Johnson's award did not surprise her colleagues, who describe her as a "master teacher."
"She's the type of person that actually lives science and is able to impart scientific ideas and concepts to her children," said Catherine Izzo, Chesapeake Bay Middle's assistant principal. "She's determined they're going to succeed and does anything she can to make her curriculum interesting to help them succeed."
Johnson has drawn on her years of summer graduate work and an interest in the environment to make science relevant to her classes. In her unit on the Chesapeake Bay, for example, pupils take a daylong field trip to the West River in South County to study the effects of pollutants and to conduct water-quality tests.
Part of something bigger
"It's not my goal to have them all be tree-huggers, but if they don't have an appreciation of the impact man can make, then I'm not doing my job," Johnson said. "I think being outside brings out the best in people. You realize you're a part of something much bigger than just you.
"When children come to that realization, it helps them to develop a sense of self-esteem and humility," she said.
Last week, her seventh-graders were preparing for the West River trip, which took place yesterday and today.Pupils were being taught to canoe and collect water samples to measure clarity, salinity, pH and other water-health indicators. Other activities include identifying species in the river and graphing the data, describing animal habitats, and mulching a trail to stem erosion.
In the classroom, Johnson used a mixture of body language, voice inflection and enthusiasm to hold center stage. She is animated even in talking about the field trip logistics, including bus assignments and a ban on backpacks.
"I appreciate you accepting that news with a positive attitude," she told the class.
Making pupils feel welcome
Johnson makes it a point never to discipline by telling pupils to stop what they're doing. She told a distracted pupil, "I appreciate your cooperation." And to two boys talking while another gave an answer, she said, "Guys, I don't want you to miss this, it's very important."
"All right, you feel good about the trip?" asked Johnson. "I want you to be attentive, sitting up perky and ready to work."
Johnson went over vocabulary words -- "clarity", "monitoring", "salinity", "seine", "mulch" -- and coaxed answers to her trip-related questions.
"If we're going to West River, why are we doing all this stuff about the bay?" "Why is water clarity important?" "Where does the bay have more salinity -- at the mouth or the head?"
By the hour's end, a boy who was slumped over his desk at the start of class shot his hand up to every question. "I like it that she makes me feel like I'm worth something, even though I don't get really good grades," he said.
"She helps me a lot and she pays attention to you," said another boy, 13-year-old Deron Hemsley. "She makes you feel welcome to the class."
Challenge of middle school
Johnson started teaching at Glen Burnie High School in 1969. After a break to raise her children and to be a home-school teacher for the county system, she joined the Chesapeake Bay Middle faculty in 1985. She said she finds the middle school level particularly challenging and satisfying.
"I think if you can harness the energy and enthusiasm of a middle school child, you can teach them anything," she said. "As far as a child's attitude toward school, authority and making their way in life, I think middle school is the last best chance we have to make a difference."
"I particularly try to bring out the young ladies in my class," Johnson said. "I really like to promote the attitude of women in science."
The philosophy worked at home. Johnson's daughter, Ann, a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, is a biochemistry major.
Her son, Paul, is a Prince George's County police officer, and her husband, Ray, is a retired teacher and businessman.
For Johnson, summers also are devoted to science. She has participated in graduate fellows programs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and for three summers was a research assistant at the Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown.
Johnson has presented her work at state and national teaching conferences, trained other science teachers and written curricula.
She is a stream monitor for Save Our Streams, and has volunteered with other environmental organizations.
Johnson said she has had opportunities to go into school administration or work in education at the state level, but doesn't want to leave the classroom.
"People always ask me, 'Where do you see yourself five years from now?' " Johnson said. "I see myself teaching seventh-grade science."