DEERFIELD — Ellen O'Donnell doesn't just teach her Deerfield Community School seventh- and eighth-graders scientific theory. She takes them outside to show them the world they're studying so they can see how the classroom concepts relate to real life.
For her efforts, O'Donnell has received the 2013 Distinguished Teacher Award from the National Science Teacher's Association.
O'Donnell, who has taught at the Deerfield Community School for 12 years, received the award last month at the National Conference on Science Education in San Antonio, Texas. The National Science Teacher's Association paid her way to the conference, where she celebrated not only being named distinguished teacher, but also her 55th birthday.
"It was a great birthday," she said.
At Deerfield Community School, O'Donnell has been instrumental in bringing change to the science curriculum, introducing new teaching methods, and working with the superintendent's committee to receive a grant to improve technology in the classroom. She also serves as a mentor for teaching students at the University of New Hampshire.
O'Donnell worked at Public Service of New Hampshire in the environmental science field before deciding to change gears and get into teaching. That transition brought her to Deerfield, where she said she tries to approach teaching in a way that makes the experience "as authentic as possible for the kids."
"I try to get them to think, to problem solve, to experience things," she said.
O'Donnell gets her students out of the classroom as much as possible. They have collected water samples from local rivers to help monitor water quality. They have rounded up and studied insects. They've even raised brook trout in the classroom and released them to the wild.
Throughout each experience, O'Donnell says she challenges her students to look at things from different perspectives and encourages them to challenge her. Though she's a teacher and an adult, O'Donnell said, she still learns from her students.
O'Donnell also continually seeks opportunities to increase her knowledge through experiences she can bring back to the classroom. From climbing mountains in New Hampshire to attending workshops to strengthen her teaching skills, O'Donnell is always trying to improve and grow as an educator.
"She's awesome," said Deerfield Community School principal Paul Yergeau. "She really has her kids think about what they're doing and shows them how what they're learning impacts their lives."