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Derry teacher who brings science to life a national award finalist

Union Leader Correspondent

November 29. 2013 8:10PM
Stephanie Burke, left, a science teacher at West Running Brook Middle School in Derry, has been recognized as a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Standing with Burke is Principal Leslie Saucier. (HUNTER McGEE/Union Leader Correspondent)

DERRY — A West Running Brook Middle School teacher with an engaging style has been recognized as a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence.

Science teacher Stephanie Burke has been named along with only three other Granite State teachers as a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

While attending school in Manchester, Burke said, she had no idea she would later go on to become a science teacher.

“It’s not something I would have ever dreamed of when I was a kid,” Burke, who teaches eighth grade, said of her career path.

Burke said she didn’t do well in science, but didn’t let that discourage her. As she grew older, Burke decided to study science in college and was determined to succeed.

“I used to struggle with it,” Burke said. “I had a lot of people tell me I wasn’t very good at it, so I decided to get a degree in it.”

Burke earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Hampshire and received a master’s degree from New England College. She has taught eighth grade science for about nine years.

Principal Leslie Saucier said it’s easy to see why Burke was chosen as a finalist. Spending some time in her classroom can become a memorable experience.

“When you come into a class and see the way she engages students, it’s unbelievable; the kids are always on the edge of their seats — their hands are raised — they are working in groups,” Saucier said as Burke was standing nearby.

In one recent exercise, Burke demonstrated how chemistry could be applied to actual careers. She said the students are interested in forensics, so she decided to contact the Derry Police Department. Chief Ed Garone agreed to send over a couple of detectives, and the students spent a full day learning how to lift fingerprints and shoe prints.

“It was awesome; the kids had a ball with it,” Burke said.

As part of the award application process, Burke said, she had to submit a variety of materials, including three different recommendations she received. One of those recommendations holds a special meaning for Burke.

“Probably the thing I’m most proud of is that I got a recommendation from a former student of mine,” Burke said. “She’s a senior over at Pinkerton now, and that was the best reward I could have received — how eloquent she was with the recommendation.”

To reach her students, Burke said she tries to remove the formality that can sometimes be associated with teaching science. She strives to make the subject more accessible and easier to follow.

“I try so hard to make it acceptable to them and so hard to make it friendly and approachable and not intimidating,” she said. “I think you can make it hands-on and learn. If you talk about atoms, let’s get the models out; if you talk about chemical reactions, let’s do it, let’s see it. And I think, hopefully, that’s what made the difference.”

The award is the highest recognition a kindergarten through Grade 12 math or science teacher can receive in the United States.

A dinner honoring Burke and the other state finalists — Jennifer Deenik of Souhegan High School in Amherst, Angela Lennox of Exeter High School and Emily Sherman of Longview School in Deerfield — is scheduled for Dec. 11 in Concord.

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