Last year was a great one for Kenai Central High School science teacher Liz Burck.
She had a grant from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, and she won the Teacher of the Year title for the Kenai Peninsula from the BP Teachers of Excellence program.
But this year she topped that.
Burck was named the Alaska winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She spent five unforgettable days earlier this month being feted in the nation's capital.
"Omigosh," she said last week. "It was an incredible celebration."
'We do have lots of great science teachers in this district. I am just one of the ranks. I think we all inspire each other. ... I've been lucky.'
Three events stood out in her memories of the trip.
"One evening they opened the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History just for the awardees," she said.
That evening included a cocktail party in the museum and a world premier screening for them of a new IMAX movie about caves.
The second highlight was the day she and others received their awards at the National Academy of Sciences.
President George W. Bush was unable to attend the presentation, but he joined up with the group outside the White House and posed for pictures with them.
"He said very gracious things about teaching and teachers," Burck recalled.
But best of all was the awards banquet, she said.
She liked the huge, colonial hall; she loved the food; and she was most impressed by keynote speaker Francis Collins, a leader of the Human Genome Project.
Burck's road to Washington, D.C., began more than a year ago. A colleague, whom she declined to name, nominated her for the award. The National Science Foundation, which sponsors the awards, sent her an application. She submitted that in January 2000. In May, she received word she was one of three finalists in her category, secondary science teaching in Alaska.
The finalists' applications were forwarded to a committee in the District of Columbia. And then there was a long wait.
On Feb. 15, she got word that she was a winner.
The letter said, "Your exceptional talent, leadership abilities and dedication as a teacher are qualities that place you among the recipients of the nation's highest honor for mathematics and science teaching. You stand firmly among the nation's best teachers of mathematics and science."
Given that, it is a bit of a surprise to learn that she was not a high school science buff herself. When she was growing up in southwest Ohio and headed off to college, she wanted to major in English and become a journalism teacher.
"But then I took a botany course from a teacher who was so outstanding that I changed my major," she said. "And then she convinced me to go into education."
After two years teaching middle school in Ohio, she married Tom Burck, and they decided to venture north to teach in Alaska. In 1980 they moved to the Kenai Peninsula .
Tom got a job teaching vocational education at KCHS and, after a year of subbing, she was hired, too.
They now live in Kasilof with their two children, Brad, who is a senior, and Katie, who is a sophomore. All are at KCHS.
Sam Stewart, the school's principal, agreed that Burck is an exceptional teacher and deserves the award. He called her one of the best teachers he has ever worked with in his career.
"I think it's because of her enthusiasm, innovation and concern for students," he said. "Under her leadership, the science department at KCHS has really grown."
When Burck got the award notification, it included a request that she be in Washington on March 4. Each state sends four winners, elementary and secondary teachers in the math and science categories.
The award is more than an honor and a free trip. It includes money.
"One of the reasons for applying for this award is it does come with $7,500," Burck said.
The winning teachers are given the money as a grant to spend any way they want on education. She has not yet decided what to do with it and plans to meet with the other science teachers at her school to work out a plan, she said.
"$7,500 is several years of our typical science department budget," she said. "So this is big."
Burck teaches about 145 students in tri-science, biology I and biology II this year and heads the school's science department. She also coaches cross country running. This is her 20th year at the school.
"The science department at KCHS has been very strong," she said.
The award reflects the caliber of the district as a whole, she emphasized.
"We do have lots of great science teachers in this district. I am just one of the ranks. I think we all inspire each other," she said.
"We are only as good as our school, as the people we work with and as the kids we get. I've been lucky."
She noted that in the past six to eight years, more students are showing interest in pursuing science careers. She has even set up a biology breakfast club for students.
During two decades in the classroom, she has seen other trends in science education.
Classes now emphasize integrating diverse topics and are getting away from textbooks back toward hands-on learning. She also noted shifts in graduation requirements toward more science credits and in course offerings toward fewer electives due to budget cuts.
She sees other changes in global science filtering into the high school classroom, especially from the revolution in genetics.
She predicted that the early 21st century will be a golden age for biological science, just as the early 20th century was for physics.
"Now that we can decipher the genomes ... there is so much information about biology, and it is changing every day. It is going to change medicine totally," she said.
"It is a really exciting time to be a biologist."
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