North Pines Middle School’s Dorinda Belcher named state’s Earth Science Teacher of the Year


Dorinda Belcher, 44, is a flurry of science lessons. Meeting her for the first time in her classroom at North Pines Middle School, students will likely see the Oregon sandstones she has mined and had cut and polished over the years.

“I didn’t find it like that,” she often tells her seventh-grade science students. She mines the gemstones, misshapen and dull, outside of Plush, Ore., and sends the colorful ones to Thailand for cutting and polishing. The end result looks like something that could be set into jewelry.

Giving her students something to touch isn’t the only way Belcher likes to teach her students.

“I find things that are interesting that can pique their interest,” she said.

Her efforts have paid off. She was recently named the 2011 Washington State Earth Science Teacher of the Year from the National Association of Geo Science Teachers.

“It was very easy to nominate her,” said Principal Gordon Grassi. He said when he walks past her classroom he never knows what he will see – one day, students are looking up templates for bottle rockets, a few days before, the teachers lounge was filled with cow eyeballs the students were to dissect that week, once he found birds’ nests they were studying for class in a student’s locker .

“Science is Dorinda’s passion,” he said. Her students are always engaged and interested in what she is teaching them. “That’s the kind of learning we want to happen.”

Belcher spends time outside of school to keep on top of her subject. She’s working on her master’s degree in geo science, she still mines Oregon sandstones and she has spent two summers working at Hanford through the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists. She worked with a scientist who specializes in the acidity of ocean waters. She takes back what she has learned and applies that to her class lessons when she discusses climate change.

“He says that it’s much harder to get a reading of the atmosphere,” she said. But measuring the acidity of the ocean shows there has been significant climate change.

She reads newspapers and watches the news to integrate current events into the science curriculum. She noted the tsunami in Japan or the recent tornadoes in the South have been classroom topics.

“Science is happening all around us,” she said.

Belcher has been teaching at North Pines for six years. She previously owned a janitorial company in the Seattle area, but after homeschooling her three children for seven years, she decided to become a teacher.

She said she wants to inspire her students to someday enter the work force in the science field. Science is an important component in our world today and employers are always looking for scientists and engineers.

“The reality is we are importing people from other nations (for those jobs),” she said.

In her classroom, students recently designed and launched bottle rockets made from empty two-liter soda pop bottles. Last month, she took a group of students to Eastern Washington University to exhibit their underwater robot skills. They built their own robots and remotely controlled them underwater to place a cap on a traffic cone.

Next week, she’ll travel to Burns, Ore., to accept her award at a conference. Yes, there will be an award ceremony and she’ll receive a plaque, but that’s not really what she’s excited about. There will be geological field trips every day.

Maybe she will find some more gems while she’s there.

“Dorinda gets excited about rocks,” Grassi said.

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