Last week in Chicago, our board of directors meeting agenda included a special guest – 2017 FFT Fellow Paula Dell, teacher at Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School in the city’s South Side. Paula used her grant to work with researchers and professors active in current excavation, research and teaching of human evolution in South Africa’s Gauteng Province – also known as the “Cradle of Human Kind.” In addition to sharing about her experiences, Paula also talked about her unique path to becoming both a teacher and an FFT Fellow.
“I came to education and teaching science later in my working career when a friend who worked in CPS told me that they were looking for science teachers,” said Paula. “I was eager to use my science background so I jumped at the chance. What a great job – teaching science and critical thinking to our youth.”
Over the past 14 years, Paula has led student expeditions to Cuba, China and Iceland. She also researched in the Antarctica with a PolarTREC grant, earned her National Board Certification and applied for a Fund for Teachers grant three times before being awarded.
“Each time I improved my proposal with the insight of Martie Sanders, professor for the School of Science Education at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,” said Paula. “By the time I received the FFT grant, we had been corresponding for three years!” When Paula finally arrived in South Africa, Martie introduced her to Marina Elliott, world-renowned biological anthropologist and lead researcher at the Rising Star dig. Marina spent one morning showing Paula around the excavation, including the cave where the 250,000-year-old Homo naledi was found.
Paula leveraged her time spent in the field with leading researchers, asking questions, visiting dig sites, and learning about the latest technologies in dating and analyzing the fossils to create a revised, phenomenon-based unit based on the most current scientific understanding. Marina Elliott even Skyped with her students during one lesson. Paula says her biggest accomplishment, however, centers around “the big picture.”
“The relationships with professors and scientists that I formed while in South Africa are real and we have kept the collaboration alive,” said Paula. “We established a network which include teachers in Canada and America. Maintaining an ongoing collaboration with these impressive researchers is so motivating and translating all of that into the classroom is equally exciting.”
After our board meeting, Paula sent a note of thanks and added the following:
“The Fund for Teachers fellowship has been such an amazing experience for me and, in turn, my students and colleagues. I cannot stress enough that the success of FFT is not measured just through analytics, which I think you know. I don’t think the greatest impact is truly quantifiable – how we bring it back to our classroom in a thousand ways, sometimes bold and obvious, sometimes more subtle. I don’t think the majority of FFT Fellows are any less committed than myself or that I am some sort of outlier. My hat is off to FFT for being one of the (too few) entities that truly places trust in teachers to know what is best for our kids. Not a bad rep to have among teachers!”
Paula (pictured Skyping with her Chicago students from Antarctica) believes that scientific exploration at all ages is crucial in understanding the world in which we live. She is a strong proponent of teaching science through inquiry, as evidenced by her students’ design of a successful underwater camera system, Fish Spy, recently deployed in Antarctica.