Connie Wyrick one of 10 instructors nationwide named to prestigious program.
Second in a series of stories about Columbia College innovations in the sciences and science teachingThe dearth of domestic science graduates has been setting off alarm bells in the Western world for decades. And Columbia College-Lake of the Ozarks adjunct chemistry instructor Constance ("Connie") Wyrick is answering the call. Wyrick admits to worrying about the future of science in Missouri, especially its rural areas; unlike most critics, she's making students as passionate about science as she is.
Wyrick was a middle school and high school science teacher in Miller County for 31 years, then retired. Wyrick could have stayed retired, but felt compelled to re-enter the educational fray – but this time on her own terms. She now teaches across the age spectrum: chemistry to college students at Columbia College's Lake Ozarks campus, a gifted enrichment program to elementary school children at Mills Elementary in Osage Beach and science research to honors students at Tuscumbia High School.
And Wyrick puts her money where her mouth is, recently applying for a Society for Science & the Public Fellows award. The award is designed to help teachers better teach science in underserved communities and to inspire excellence in independent scientific research. She thought she had little real chance of winning one of the ten $8,500 grants; about 100 instructors applied, some from far more populous cities and suburbs.
But Wyrick did win, and says she will use the renewable, four-year award to set up a mentoring program between her high school students and any scientist willing to mentor them, including college professors, microbiologists working for the state and chemists in private firms. As an SSP Fellow, Wyrick will also attend a Fellows conference in late July 2009 in Washington, D.C.
Representing the underrepresented and underserved
"We were supposed to present a plan when writing the proposal," she says. "I thought, 'What would work with an underrepresented, underserved school?' The fact that I have worked with small schools most of my career made it easier to have an insight into what type of program would work within a small-school system, be it a rural or an inner city school. The issues are the same. I think they were looking for teachers with feasible plans that were visionary."
Wyrick says that teachers from schools as diverse as one from an Indian reservation and another from inner-city Harlem were selected for the same reason that she was. Her extensive current affiliations -- the Red Cross swim program, Missouri Academy of Science, Missouri State Teachers Association, the Gifted Association of Missouri and Delta Kappa Gamma, an international honor society of women educators – didn’t hurt, and neither did a 25-year track record of her students entering prestigious science competitions. Wyrick's kids have competed and won at science competitions statewide, nationally and internationally.
These competitions include the Missouri Junior Academy of Science, National Junior Science and Engineering Symposium, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, Stockholm Junior Water Prize and the London Youth Science Competition.
"They [her students] have seen other kids from our school go all over the country to compete, and they have seen them get college scholarships, so I think that motivates them. They are not doing it for grades; they do it for the love of research and other intrinsic rewards. That is the best scenario for a teacher, a student doing it for love of research."
Science in shorts and flip-flops
Wyrick's tactics seem to be working. In the summer of 2009, Wyrick selected 10 Tuscumbia high school students for a broad exploratory course which delivers no grade or credit, just a passion for science. On a recent weekday, Wyrick had them down at a local creek dressed in shorts and flip-flops for four hours monitoring macroinvertebrates, determining phosphate and nitrate levels, analyzing pH and collecting other water chemistry data. Her plan was to expose them to various disciplines so when school starts in August, they will have a better idea of a science area they want to explore. Wyrick will then search for mentors to keep that passion alive.
Wyrick holds a bachelor's degree in science education from Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State), and has done the equivalent work of a master's degree in graduate work at the University of Missouri-Columbia. For three summers in the late 1990s, Wyrick had the opportunity to conduct research with a Canadian biologist as part of a Howard Hughes Research Fellowship.
Science and education runs in her family: her father taught elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse and later became a family physician, two of her three sisters were teachers and the fourth is an RN. She says a favorite hobby is geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunting game using GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online.
So is she a scientist, a teacher or a mentor?
"I am a teacher who really loves learning," she says. "If I can act as a facilitator, connecting high school kids with the process of science through research, then perhaps my students will also develop a love for learning that will lead them to careers in science. "