At the Blue Valley Wilderness Science Center near 163rd Terrace and Nall Avenue, two visiting classes of fifth graders listened intently as Gavin Spake explained what to do with water samples he had collected for them to examine.
“These are micro habitats,” said Spake, the district coordinating teacher at the center. “Sample one comes from the wetland, and sample two comes from the vernal pool, where the water is clearer. These are amphibian breeding grounds. … Look for the difference between tadpole and salamander larvae.”
Under the microscope, the samples were, indeed, teeming with tiny life forms. The students’ job in the recent lesson was to find as many as possible, identify them by comparing what they saw to reference materials and catalog them.
“You guys were awesome wetlands biologists today,” Spake told the students when they had finished the experiment.
It was this type of lesson that earned Spake recognition from the Blue Valley Education Foundation as one of two 2014 Innovative Educator award winners. Blue Valley Northwest High School physics teacher Theresa Rudnick was the other winner. Each of them will receive a $1,250 grant to use for classroom projects.
The non-profit foundation was established in 1990 to support and supplement education in the school district. Since then, it has given out more than $1.8 million in grants and special programs. It began presenting annual Innovative Educator awards in 2009. This year, for the first time, the foundation named two award winners — Spake at the elementary school level and Rudnick as a secondary-school teacher.
Tonya Merrigan, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the school district, explained why she nominated Spake.
“Gavin is passionate about environmental science and couples that with a love of teaching,” Merrigan said. “He inspires our kids every day. He was a natural fit when I looked at the award criteria.”
Blue Valley Northwest principal Amy Murphy said much the same thing about Rudnick, whom she nominated for the award.
“She fits the description of what it means to be an innovative educator,” Murphy said. “Every time I go to her classroom, students are actively engaged in different activities. Whether it’s tie-dying T-shirts or mixing up ice cream, they can always tell me what’s happening, why they are doing it and how it ties into the lesson that’s happened in class. It has meaning to the kids, taking what they learned in class and having a practical application.”
On a recent morning, Rudnick was using a keyboard to teach students about waveforms.
“We were teaching about music and math and the relationships between musical notes, recording the frequency being played on keyboards,” Rudnick said. The lesson, she said, helped students understand “why some notes sound dissonant when played together and why others sound pleasant when played together.”
“In a lot of things,” she said, “if you ask the question ‘why?’ long enough, it becomes a physics answer.”
Rudnick is completing just her fourth full year as a teacher after graduating from Kansas State University. She was modest when asked about her methods.
“I didn’t think I was all that innovative,” she said. “I do what I think is exciting and interesting. If that’s innovative, that’s awesome.”
Rudnick said it was an interesting time to be a teacher in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She finds that many of her students try to stay abreast of developments in quantum physics, such as the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson subatomic particle.
“There is a lot you can do within the STEM field,” Rudnick said. “Anything I can do to encourage them and help them find a passion in that is wonderful.”
The Blue Valley Education Foundation’s award announcement said Rudnick’s creativity in the classroom has caused enrollment in physics to increase drastically and has also resulted in more students, especially girls, continuing into Advanced Placement physics.