For Melissa Pearcy, science has always been an umbrella for other learning.
“If you’re curious about something, you’ll want to read and write about it,” she said. “The heart of science is asking questions and learning about why things are the way they are. If you think of scientists as being curious, then everyone is a scientist.”
Pearcy, a science specialist at Jefferson Elementary School, was recently selected as a GeekWire Stem Educator of the Year. The GeekWire Awards recognize leading individual innovators and companies in Pacific Northwest technology.
“She’s a powerful influence on our kids and our community,” Jefferson principal Brent Perdue said. “It goes beyond science – she has a knack for connecting with kids from underrepresented groups. She’s a mentor in our PALS (Positive Actions Lending Support) program for kids who need a little extra help.”
At Jefferson, Pearcy teaches kindergarten through fifth grade. She’s a lead teacher for Spokane Public Schools, providing STEM professional development for her colleagues. Pearcy is also a graduate student pursuing a PhD in science education and serves on a national team developing cutting-edge science curriculum focused on real-world learning
The natural setting of the South Hill school lends itself to real-world learning.
“A momma duck hatched nine babies in our courtyard a couple of weeks ago,” Pearcy said. “A teacher brought in a wading pool.”
The duck family was relocated to Liberty Lake, but not before Pearcy’s students learned about ducks and their natural habitats.
Earlier in the year, baby squirrels offered a learning opportunity.
“They fell from a tree at school,” Pearcy said. “Kids are naturally empathetic. They wanted to know how to help.”
She called a scientist who told her to Google mom squirrel sounds and place her phone next to the babies.
Pearcy and her students did that during recess. Sure enough, Momma Squirrel came out of the tree and took her babies to a different and, they hoped, safer nest.
That kind of problem-solving highlights the engineering component of a STEM education. Pearcy said it’s exciting to watch her students identify problems and search for solutions in the classroom and in their community.
But perhaps the most important lesson her students learn can’t be quantified by a grade – they learn it’s OK to try something and fail.
“When you pull back the curtain, scientists have failed many times before they actually discover something,” she said. “We’re not going to get it right the first time and that’s OK.”
In her 22nd year of teaching, she’s more optimistic than ever.
“The kids are OK,” Pearcy said. “They’re resourceful and finding answers. I see how their brains are solving problems.”
Her passion for her work inspires more than just her students. Perdue enjoys being in her classroom.
“I could sit in her class all day long – it’s so interesting. The kids just eat it up. She gets them excited about exploring their passions,” he said. “She’s so deserving of being recognized this way.”
The GeekWire award surprised Pearcy. She credits her supportive work environment for her success.
“The leadership at Spokane Public Schools focuses on making science accessible for all kids,” she said. “This is my dream job. I get to teach science all day long.”