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Winning teacher goes to great lengths

Posted by Johanna Seltz  April 30, 2010 09:09 AM

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Some student learn about extrapolating data from textbooks; Jenifer Gilbert’s eighth-grade science classes drop Barbie dolls on long rubber bands off the balcony at the entrance to the Pierce Middle School.

The “Barbie Bungee Jumping” lab started in the classroom where students tested the distance Barbie fell from different heights and graphed the results. Students then extrapolated to figure out how many rubber band lengths would successfully get their Barbie as close to the ground as possible -- without cracking her skull -- when dropped from the school balcony.

“When they put it to the test and find that their bungee lengths are not exactly perfect, we discuss the limits of extrapolating data in this way,” Gilbert said in a recent interview. “This was the focus: the benefits and limits of extrapolating data.

“It’s not all about fun, but it is nice when it can be fun,” she added. “I try to make sure my labs are both hands-on and minds-on.”

That approach is why Gilbert is one of only four teachers in Massachusetts -- and 34 teachers nationwide -- to win the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence this year. The award recognizes extraordinary science teachers, who significantly affect their students, and comes with $10,000 -- half for the school science department -- from the Amgen biotechnology company.

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“She was given the award because she is an amazing science teacher,” said Pierce assistant principal Karen Spaulding, who also is the school’s math and science coordinator. “She knows her science well. She also knows middle school students very well and creates science experiences where they …are really doing science as scientists do.”

This is Gilbert’s second year at Pierce. She taught for two years before that at an alternative high school in Cambridge, after receiving her master's in biology from Northeastern University.

Gilbert, 33, originally planned on college teaching but said she loves working at the middle school. “I like the variety of science I get to teach, and I like that you can focus on the big picture and not all the nitty gritty details,” she said.

Right now her class is studying genetics and working with Wisconsin “fast plants” -- they go from seed to seed in 40 days -- to study how traits can be selectively bred. The students are choosing the 10 percent most “hairy” plants and breeding them to see if the next generation has even more “hairs” on its leaves.

Gilbert said she isn’t sure how she’ll spend her $5,000 prize, but it may get her to Italy for a sister’s wedding this summer. The school will use its $5,000 to buy science materials, Spaulding said.

Gilbert said she was completely surprised at getting the award -- and at the assembly the school gave in her honor right before the April vacation. “It was really amazing, over the top,” she said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

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