PHS science teacher wins national award

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Sometimes Wendy Smith’s classroom is a fish hatchery. Other days, it’s in the field, working with bighorn sheep. Occasionally, her students find themselves surrounded by the wildness and beauty of America’s first national park.

“I love doing what I do,” said Smith, a Powell High School science teacher. “I love being able to take kids to Yellowstone and their eyes are open to a new world up there.”

Smith was recently recognized by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) with the DuPont Pioneer Excellence in Agricultural Science Education Award. She and other NSTA award-winning science instructors were honored at a banquet in Atlanta last month.

“It was really fun,” Smith said. “And what a learning experience, being able to go back there and talk to other professionals who are doing some really cool, interesting things in the classroom.”

PHS Principal Jim Kuhn called the award a great honor for Smith as well as the high school and Park County School District No. 1.

The award came with $2,500 to use in her PHS classroom. Earlier this month, Smith found out that she also won a $5,000 grant from the National Education Association.

She plans to use the funding toward creating an edible learning lab at PHS. The lab will feature vertical grow towers, providing students with hands-on learning opportunities to grow vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Smith will work with Modern Steader, a company based in Buffalo that offers edible learning lab equipment and hundreds of lesson plans.

Students will be able to learn about soils, water and fertilizers with the grow towers. Smith plans to use the towers in her biology, environmental science and natural resources classes.

“It hits all of my classes, which is really cool,” Smith said.

She’d also like to partner with woodworking students to create plant boxes and hopes agriculture students can get involved. Beyond that, Smith wants to include special education students — and pupils in culinary classes can use the harvested produce in the meals they create.

“They have already given me a list of the herbs they want us to plant,” Smith said.

Through hands-on lessons, Smith said kids can learn what it takes to grow their own food in a garden.

“Kids are going to be involved — they’re going to know what they’re eating and have a healthier lifestyle,” she said.

Down the road, she said it may be possible to include elementary school students, too.

“There’s so many possibilities with this,” she said.

Smith is excited to see how the project could grow.

“We’re just going to try it out and see how it goes,” she said. “Once we see how it goes, we’ll probably keep adding to it.”

Real-life lessons

Smith works hard to bring hands-on, real-life application to her science classes, said Principal Kuhn.

“Students not only learn the classroom information, but also transfer that knowledge to practical application of real-life science,” Kuhn said.

Smith said she thinks students learn better and retain more through hands-on lessons.

It’s always important to teach the background, terminology and fundamentals, “but then you’ve got to open it up and allow them to do some stuff hands-on,” Smith said.

“They need to find out for themselves what’s going on in the world,” she added.

Smith is passionate about bringing new projects and lessons to her classes.

Since she started teaching in Powell in the fall of 1985, Smith has built partnerships with multiple agencies — including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, Park County Weed & Pest, conservation districts and others — to bring science lessons to life for her students.

“The relationship that Wendy has with federal, state, local organizations and the farming/ranch community is very special,” Kuhn said. “With that connection, we are able to give students the opportunity to take part in activities and see the career paths that are available.”

Smith said the support from the community is “amazing.”

“We are just so lucky to have so many people in our community that are willing to educate our kids in their speciality,” Smith said.

She also enjoys taking kids on field trips around the area, including to Yellowstone.

“... no one else in the world gets to do some of the stuff we get to do,” Smith said.

During an overnight outing to the park, students stayed at Mammoth Hot Springs and watched as a bull elk came through in the morning and bugled.

“What else is there in the world, other than loving the outdoors?” Smith said.

Her science classes are popular among teens at PHS. Some of her former students have gone on to work in science-related fields.

“We do lots of different things, and hopefully it’s meaningful to them,” Smith said. “They need to have meaningful educational experiences that they can take with them.”

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