Chatfield instructor wins science teaching award

October 18, 2018 GMT

CHATFIELD — The day’s lesson in Nora Gathje’s physical science class was gravity.

Students were given sheets to record observations, balls of various size and weights. The students dropped, bounced, tossed and rolled the balls and recorded results.

“This is how they learn,” Gathje said. “I just let them play.”

Gathje, Chatfield High School science teacher, was honored as the 2018 Secondary Science Teaching Award from the Minnesota Science Teachers Association.

In most classrooms, the lessons come first and the experiments follow.

“I do the opposite,” Gathje said. “We haven’t even talked about gravity yet.”

Gathje said she could have told them objects accelerate at 9.8 meters per second until reaching terminal velocity.

“They’re going to forget that before they’re in their next class,” Gathje said.

Instead, she’s letting them experiment and observe.

Two students coordinated dropping baseballs from the lab table — one dropped it from a dead stop, the other rolled the ball forward off the table. Video recorded by a third student showed both balls hit the ground at the same time regardless of forward momentum.

“Pretty interesting, isn’t it?” Gathje said to student Shelby Nolan who made the observation.

Other students had a harder time making the observation, assuming the ball with forward momentum would stay in the air longer.

“Are you sure you aren’t being biased?” she asked another group recording different times between the two conditions.

“If they see it, and they got it wrong, they remember it,” Gathje said. She encouraged students to use video and listen for the bounce.

“I ask them to use multiple senses,” she said.

Gathje’s was honored too for her extracurricular leadership. She established a Rube Goldberg team in 2015. The contest is named after turn-of-the-century inventor Rube Goldberg, who was known for his imaginative, whimsical machines which were also complex and exact. After hearing about the student contest, Gathje already knew which students would be interested. She successfully recruited them. However, the team’s first time out wasn’t a success.

“We came in last,” she said.

However, the students on the team looked at the winning project.

“They said, ‘We could do that,’” she said.

Last year, the team won the national competition.

Teaching them to work together and to bounce back from initial failure was as much the lesson as anything else the project had to offer.

“As a teacher, my big goal is to keep in mind what an adult needs to know,” she said.

Gathje was initially on track to earn a Ph.D to become a college professor and teach. However, she didn’t find doing research as rewarding as teaching.

Retired chemistry teacher Chuck Handlon nominated Gathje for the recognition describing her as “extremely dedicated and passionate for her students.”

Gathje will receive the honor in person Nov. 9 at the Minnesota Conference on Science Education in St. Cloud. With it comes a $1,000 grant to Chatfield High School to be used in a school project of her choosing.

Fittingly, Gathje is launching a green team environmental science initiative this year. The group of students will test water quality in and around Chatfield among other projects. This year, the team is working to track where the recycling and garbage the school generates goes and how much of each the school produces.

Gathje credits a supportive school administration for allowing her and students to take on these projects.

“I feel blessed they let me try it,” she said of the Rube Goldberg team.

The MnSTA Science Teaching Award is granted each year to one secondary and one elementary Minnesota science teacher since 1995.