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June 19, 2013

HPHS teacher named ‘Outstanding Biology Teacher’

National organization selects Pamela Sparks as Michigan recipient

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Pamela Sparks, biology teacher at Hazel Park High, third from right, shares a moment with students Ally Kauzlarich, Branden Craft, Nannie Gajos, Heather Lee, Jacqueline Brown and Sydney Herzog, all freshmen in Sparks’ sixth-hour biology class. Sparks was recently named the Michigan selection for Outstanding Biology Teacher by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

HAZEL PARK — From deploying underwater robots to reanimating disembodied limbs, Pamela Sparks knows how to create memorable moments for her students.

A biology teacher at Hazel Park High, Sparks gets her students revved for learning with a passion for the life sciences that can only be described as infectious.

The students then go hands-on with the material, in what Sparks calls “learning through discovery.”

It’s an educational model she developed under her first teaching mentor, Ed Duda, a field biologist and long-time teaching vet at HPHS. Like Sparks, Duda was fascinated with project-based learning. Now, Sparks has been teaching biology for more than 20 years, devising a parade of creative projects along the way.

And more recently, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) recognized her for her work.

Each year, NABT selects one teacher in the life sciences from each of the 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., Canada, Puerto Rico and overseas territories. For Michigan, they chose Sparks.

“Mrs. Sparks is an innovator,” said Amy Zitzelberger, science chair at HPHS. “She’s brought many dynamic real-world projects to our students. Her dedication and commitment to the Hazel Park schools is extraordinary, and we are happy to see her earn recognition in her field.”

Any educator teaching biology in seventh through 12th grade is eligible for the award, provided they have at least three years of public, private or parochial school teaching experience, a significant portion of which has been dedicated to the life sciences. They do not need to be NABT members.

According to the NABT website, candidates are evaluated on a number of factors, including teaching ability and experience, school and community involvement, student relationships, inventiveness, and initiative.

The recipients will be honored during the NABT Professional Development Conference in Atlanta this November. Sparks said she’s thrilled.

“I honestly do love my discipline. Biology is always changing,” Sparks said. “People often ask me, ‘When did you know you wanted to teach biology?’ Well, I knew in high school that it was my calling; I’m one of those lucky people who knew this is what I was meant to do.”

As a teenager growing up in Warren, she spent her summers working as a camp counselor and lifeguard at several camps.

“That’s where I really fell in love with the outdoors, spending my summers in nature, appreciating it, and it was through those experiences I discovered I wanted to study biology,” Sparks said. “The diversity is what was amazing to me. To a city kid, a flower is a flower, but when you get into the outdoors, you see the different reproductive organs, the different sizes and colors.

“I was just amazed,” she said, “not only by how much there was, but by how well things just work together.”

Showing how well things “work together” is one of the goals of the activity-based learning Sparks brings to the classroom.

For example, she once collaborated with Kevin Gallatin, math teacher at HPHS, on a grant for neuroscience through a company called Backyard Brains. This allowed them to purchase the company’s trademark “SpikerBox,” through which they connect an iPod to a cockroach leg, causing the leg to move in rhythm with the music.

“We look for songs with strong bass. We get the best dancing legs,” Sparks said. “The lesson is how organisms runs on electricity. The leg is not moving, but as soon as you connect the wires to the leg and complete the circuit, even though the leg is removed from the body, it’s still working. It’s a very vivid example of how impulses, or action potentials, move through living organisms.”

Another project involved underwater robots. Sparks brought the project to HPHS in conjunction with Square One Education Network. The two-hour workshop had students building robots out of PVC kits, equipping them with motors and, in some cases, the same kind of underwater camera used by biologists studying the Great Lakes. The robots were then deployed in the high school swimming pool, piloted by remote control.

“The students wanted to fight them, but we told them no!” Sparks said.

The exercise was a way to demonstrate a research method used by real biologists. Now, the school is planning a club for next year in which students will build underwater robots from the ground up, culminating in a competition at the end of the year.

And then there are the projects that made the class look more like an art room, such as the time students made model red blood cells, with thumbtacks showing the different protein types, or the time they made creatures out of clay, only to have the students slice them into sections demonstrating radial symmetry, bilateral symmetry and so forth.

“They have a blast with it,” Sparks said. “These projects engage all types of learners, because you have oral learners and you have visual learners, and our kids are so tactile and visual these days that you have to really reach those different modalities.”

Sparks also schedules her lessons in such a way as to maximize student interest. Skeletal systems are studied around Halloween, for example, while viruses and bacteria are covered during the cold and flu season.

But Sparks doesn’t just engage kids in the classroom. She is co-coordinator with retired HPHS teacher Cathy Keeler on the school’s Leadership Program, which includes a weekly talk time called the Empowerment Zone, held during the lunch period, where students and adult guests from the community come together to support one another. Challenge Day, for the freshmen class, is one concept born of the Leadership Program, encouraging students to get along.

“She loves her students,” Zitzelberger said. “She’s involved with them not only in the classroom, but she’s instrumental in training leaders within the student body. She reaches students in the classroom, and she’s a driving force for positive change within the school. That combination is powerful.”

The NABT agrees. Sparks said it’s an “overwhelming feeling” receiving the award. She thanks her husband, Rich Sparks, who nominated her for the award, and her parents and “first teachers,” Rich and Connie Malacusky, formerly of Warren.

“I feel a very deep sense of pride, yet I also feel like I’m just getting started,” Sparks said. “There are so many more students to inspire. And I always tell my students they’re smarter than me; I just have more experience. I’m giving them the tools in their toolbox.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.