ELKO – What happens when you mix 14 animals, an eight-foot snake and two fish tanks among two dozen students, then add one teacher’s aide, one student aide, and one science teacher all in the same room?
In chemistry terms, such a mixture could be combustible. In education terms, it might be no different according to biology and zoology teacher Kristin Birdzell as she explains how she has adapted a retrofitted home economics room into her science classroom at Elko High School.
“These are counters for cooking, not for science. You end up with outlets along walls where we have to crowd a couple of students here,” Birdzell said. “Whereas, we should have electric outlets in the middle of the room where they sit right there at their table and do their work.”
Birdzell, who was recently named biology teacher of the year, has made her classroom functional in the six years she has been teaching at EHS, cramming snake and lizard tanks along the perimeter of the room with microscopes placed in between them on counters.
“I have a pretty big animal collection because these guys love it,” Birdzell said, nodding toward her students. “It’s like therapy to them.”
It’s not just the animal life that is creating the need for larger space, but new teaching methods in science that has prompted the school district to start the process of designing and constructing a new science building on campus. One that will allow more room for hands-on activities and new technology that could prepare high school students for a variety of college degree programs in multiple scientific fields.
The first step toward the new building has been made. Design West Architects was hired by the Elko County School District to provide a preliminary design for the new building. The decision was approved by the Board of Trustees on Feb. 12.
Although it’s not been fully finalized, the district sees “there is definitely a need and a lot of support for it,” said Casey Kelly, director of building operations and construction.
Once the final drawings are approved and the contract is put out to bid, the two-story building could include 11 classrooms.
So far, the cost of the building is unknown until the building size and type is approved, Kelly said, but the district considers it to be more cost effective than remodeling the existing labs in the Junior and Senior buildings. It would also free six to eight classrooms in those buildings for other purposes.
It would be the first new structure on the EHS campus since 1990 when the vocational/technical building was built, Kelly added. The last three main structures, Centennial Gymnasium, the Junior and the Senior buildings were all constructed in 1968.
Constructed 50 years ago, the science classrooms were not designed to incorporate new technology or the recently implemented Nevada Science Standards, Birdzell explained. Even if the lab's gas lines were repaired and electrical systems were brought up to speed, the classrooms are “virtually obsolete and/or nonfunctional.”
“The age of the existing buildings has resulted in spaces too small to maintain safety as the population of Elko has grown,” Birdzell explained.
The effort to bring attention to the state of EHS’s science classrooms started with retired teacher Dave Meisner, Birdzell said.
“He fought for years for renovations. It's not a brand new thing,” Birdzell explained, rather it is "the luck of timing and how it fell into place.”
It was the recent $55,000 grant from Barrick to the school district for the purchase equipment for physics, chemistry and DNA experiments that signaled the teachers and the district to seriously look at constructing the new building. Birdzell conducted research and spoke with the school’s other science teachers to determine what was exactly needed and presented it to the school district.
“Right now, our electrical, water and gas facilities are not even capable of meeting current needs,” Birdzell said.
Science teacher Annie Linder is one of the EHS science teachers who said she is looking forward to having more room for inquiry labs and investigations that “engage students in their science education.”
“This will help me incorporate more research and project-based learning into my lessons, Linder said. “I am eager to incorporate new labs and activities into my units to get students excited about science.”
Student preparation is critical now that next generation science standards are being introduced in elementary schools starting as early as kindergarten, Birdzell said. Overall, it is a shift from “rote memorization of details and more on the process of science.”
By focusing on inquiry and discovery, students seem to be less intimidated by science and are enjoying science class more, Birdzell explained.
“Middle schools switched over to it, and I’m seeing those kids now. I think I get less of [them saying] science is boring,” she said.
Attaching a “meaningful knowledge” of science to high school students is also Linder’s goal in the classroom.
“Students retain information that is meaningful to them,” Linder said. “I utilize many hands-on activities in our current facilities. Science education focuses on the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”
The cramped quarters aside, Birdzell’s own passion for teaching has not diminished as she hopes her students are prepared for the rigors of biology studies in college, which is another benefit of the new building.
“In my time as a university tutor in the biology center, I could see a difference between those who had a strong background in biology and the ones who didn’t,” Birdzell said. “If you haven’t had a really strong background in science, you’re playing catch-up and feeling overwhelmed.”
When Birdzell entered Purdue University, her love of animals gave her dreams of first becoming an exotic animal veterinarian. The she decided to be a zookeeper, before finding out that the pay "was worse than teacher's pay."
“It’s a four-year degree, unpaid internships, and then work for minimum wage, basically,” Birdzell said. After graduating from college in 1998, Birdzell moved to Elko 12 years ago, married, had two children and found a job as a teacher.
In November, her efforts in education were recognized as she was named outstanding biology teacher by the National Association of Biology Teachers.
“I was honored to represent Elko High School and the state of Nevada at the awards ceremony in San Diego in a room full of very dedicated and distinguished biology education professionals from all over the country and all levels of education,” she said.
However, it’s the thought of a new science building that is more exciting than the award.
“It is gratifying to be recognized, but it is absolutely exhilarating to know that what we are doing right now and into next year will deeply impact the science education of thousands of young people in Elko for years to come,” Birdzell said.
“After all, making a difference in kids’ lives is ultimately why we, as educators, do what we do every day.”
The online version of this article corrected the amount of the grant from Barrick.