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SD Department of Education January 2015  
 

 

TEACHER FEATURE

Julie Olson nominated for Global Teacher Prize

Julie Olson is a science teacher at Second Chance High School, the alternative high school in Mitchell. She recently became one of 50 nominees worldwide for the first-ever Global Teacher Prize. Congratulations, Julie!

Why did you decide to become a teacher?
I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. I was actually pre-med at USD. When I was in grad school, I taught freshman biology labs. One of my students was blind, and the challenge of needing to adapt my teaching methods for that student got me hooked. You can’t just say, “See?” You don’t realize how often you say that. So, for instance, in chicken embryology, I made the pictures bigger and cut out the shapes. That ability to adapt is a useful skill when you’re a teacher, because students all learn differently.

In 2013, after teaching for more than 20 years at Mitchell High School, Olson put that skill to work in a new setting, developing the science program at Second Chance.

What kind of science program have you developed?
We’re using a self-paced, blended science program. There are online and hands-on components. Another term for it is mass customized learning. Students who get a concept quickly can move on. It then opens up more opportunities for students. If they get their core classes done, they can move on to AP courses, dual credit, etc. They can also pursue internship or research opportunities.

How do you get kids excited about science?
I try to connect it to their daily lives. Sometimes I start by finding out what already interests them. Maybe they like art, so I could ask, “Well, did you know Leonardo DaVinci was also a scientist and engineer?”

I’ll set out items for them, like kinetic sand, a giant pinecone, a puffer fish exoskeleton. Then I let them just kind of play with it, pick it up, ask questions. I don’t always answer their questions, but instead ask questions in return and let them run with it.

What are Science Saturdays?
It’s a program we started in fall 2013. About once a month, we hold two-hour Saturday sessions, where Second Chance students lead elementary students in various science experiments. Some of the things we’ve done are CSI activities and a robotics camp for 3rd-5th graders, Science Olympics and candy science for the younger kids.

For the elementary students, it’s a great opportunity to get them engaged in science and feed that curiosity. And then I see my students, who could become teachers. They’re put in that position of a role model and they get to share their knowledge.

How do you collaborate with other teachers?
The alternative high school staff is small, which helps us collaborate a lot, across disciplines. We eat lunch together, we’re always talking. Say I want to assign a reaction paper. I’ll ask the English teacher, “What are you looking for in a reaction paper?” That way I can use the same kind of language, and the guidance students get from me sounds like what they’re also hearing in their English classes.

Second Chance shares a building with the CTE Academy, so in environmental science recently, I collaborated with the building trades instructor. Students built a playhouse out of pallets. A couple of people have even expressed interest in purchasing it! We’re planning to sell it and give the proceeds to Habitat for Humanity.

I’ve also had students grow plants in a science class that the ProStart® students then use in their cooking classes.

What would it mean to you to win the Global Teacher Prize?
I would be very honored. The intent of the award is not to honor a certain teacher, but the teaching profession. I would keep doing what I do, presenting at state conventions, helping other teachers, collaborating with other teachers. It’s an honorable and very important job. The prize is also a testament to my family, colleagues and former teachers who have been role models and have inspired me.

 
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