WOODSTOCK — Tonya Prentice got an email from the FBI three weeks ago, announcing she had been cleared to go to the White House.
That’s when she knew she’d won the nation’s highest honor for teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I think it took me a little while for it to sink in,” the fifth-grade teacher at Woodstock Elementary School said in a phone interview Monday evening.
It became real, she said, when she was presented the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching from the National Science Foundation on June 25.
The honor was in recognition of her hands-on lessons raising endangered Atlantic salmon in her classroom the past nine years and other studies on the importance of being good stewards of the Earth. She is one of 104 teachers to receive the award this year.
Prentice resides in Woodstock and was nominated by school Principal Jolene Littlehale in 2016.
“My accomplishments and achievements have been made possible with the support and encouragement of my wonderful family, mentors, colleagues and students,” Prentice said in accepting the honor. “It is for them that I continue to challenge myself and my students while striving to foster their curiosity and imagination.”
Every year for the past nine years, her classroom has raised about 200 Atlantic salmon eggs from Craig Brook Fish Hatchery in East Orland. They’re kept in a 20-gallon tank.
“We raise the eggs in the classroom, and I work with a tech person and we use a high-powered microscope (to) watch the life cycle of the eggs, and then project them onto the big screen,” she said. “It’s a lot of research and investigation about how the population has been impacted over the years.”
Prentice said the students “are very engaged.”
“It’s hands-on,” she said. “It’s something real to them. It shows them stewardship of the Earth, and they realize that we do have an impact on our environment.”
Once the baby fish, called fry, reach a certain size Prentice and her students are joined by parents, school staff and state wardens in releasing the fish into into the Swift River at the confluence with the Androscoggin River in Mexico, she said.
For the past five years, Prentice has been a mentor for the Atlantic Salmon Fish Friends to carry out the salmon-breeding work.
She also partnered with the Gulf of Maine Institute as the lead teacher to support rural educators in creating and implementing science investigations with students, according to a news release on the award. She worked with the University of Maine 4-H to create lessons involving science, technology, engineering and math.
But salmon-breeding is not the only environmental lesson she provides for students. They have learned about milfoil in lakes and ponds, and the wooly adelgid beetle that attacks hemlock trees in Maine.
Prentice and her students go into the woods to record whether or not they find any of the beetles in the area and then upload their information to the Vital Signs website, a part of the Gulf of Maine research. Afterward, they are able to collaborate with scientists online about their findings and confirm whether or not they’ve found invasive species.
“When they’re doing these lessons and research they find value in it and they realize why they’re doing it. It’s not just because we have to do this at school; they want to be able to make a difference,” Prentice said.
It is important educators teach students skills in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics “because that’s where all the jobs are right now, she said. “So it’s not just teaching them (to memorize). It’s having them apply their knowledge, and tying it all together with different subjects. I think by doing this, it definitely increases the students’ critical thinking and solving-problems skills.”
She thanked those who have supported her efforts.
“It’s definitely something that teachers cannot do on their own,” she said. “(We) have to have a lot of support from the community, and I feel I have that so I’m able to do these things with my students.,”
Although this is the highest honor in her 11-year teaching career at Woodstock, it is not the only one. She has received The Kevin McCarthy Education Innovation Award and Community Volunteer of the Year award from Franklin Grange in Woodstock. She also attended the Michelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, and has received grants and awards that helped restore the Woodstock school’s nature trail, raise Atlantic salmon and provide new technology for her students.
Prentice earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science from Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, and a master’s degree, summa cum laude, in science and math education from Walden University in Minneapolis.
Staff Editor Mary Delamater contributed to this report.