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Channeling science in the classroom

Life Christian School teacher heads to D.C. for Siemens fellowship


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Holly Neill, a science teacher at Life Christian School in Aloha, looks over Tara Osburn's environmental science website project. Neill is one of 50 teachers across the nation who won a fellowship to the Siemens STEM Institute in Washington, D.C.Holly Neill tips a container of ladybugs into a netting insect cage in front of a preschool class. The kids jump up to see the ladybugs buzz around their new home.

“I touched one!” a few call out, eager to tell Neill about their bravery, but two sit in the back of the room by a bookshelf hugging their knees. They aren’t the only ones apprehensive to touch bugs: Neill is stepping in for the preschool teacher.

Neill, 29, the eighth- through 12th-grade science teacher at Life Christian School in Aloha, is more than happy to help out other teachers during this year’s science month celebration at the school: Bug Month.

As the Science Department chairwoman, Bug Month was Neill’s idea. Last year, it was Space Month.

Her innovative ideas about scientific education — she put rockets on her list of required school supplies and gave the fifth-grade class a parachute activity — are why Neill was awarded a fellowship to the Siemens Science Technology Engineering and Math Institute in Washington, D.C.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Holly Neill is a science teacher at Life Christian School in Aloha.

“She’s great,” said Angie Taylor, principal of Life Christian School. “We’re all really proud of her.”

A selection of 50 teachers from across the nation has been invited on this all-expenses-paid trip to the nation’s capital. Keynote speakers, tours of leading institutions and networking are among the highlights of the trip that will take place Aug. 3-8 at the world headquarters of Discovery Communications — home to such television networks as Discovery Channel, Science and Animal Planet.

“It’s kind of like a big group mentoring,” said Neill. “We each have our own science things that we like to do, and we can learn more from each other and put those things into our classrooms. I’m excited, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a great, nerdy week.”

Neill almost didn’t have time to complete her application by the deadline, but due to the snowstorm in February that cancelled school, she ended up finishing her video about taking science outside the classroom.

And that’s just what she does. Neill’s students enter the Envirothon, a competition about environmental issues, topography and ecosystems; Marine Advanced Technology Education, an underwater robotics competition; and e-cybermission, a national web-based community improvement competition.

In 2013, Neill’s eighth-grade boys’ team won the e-cybermission for their grade and state with a robotics project, also winning $1,000 each.

Neill took her environmental science students to an Oregon State University exposition on forest technology, where they saw logging in action and learned about natural resources. Every year, she takes chemistry students to George Fox University to do a nuclear magnetic resonance lab to learn about atoms and nuclei and use professional equipment.

“It’s her second year teaching, and that’s pretty amazing,” said Eric Neill, her husband and a fellow teacher at Life Christian School. “The first year is usually hard — every class, every hour, is all new.”

As part of Bug Month, Holly Neill’s classroom is home to Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Depending on age groups, different classes are growing butterflies, praying mantises or “roly poly” (pill bugs).

“We’re just trying to build a science program that works all the way up for every grade, so each kid gets excited. I’m not saying it’s not hard — you’re learning a new language, you’re learning new math, you’re learning a new English essentially,” said Neill. “But if we can teach them how to use it, then when they become adults, they’re better educated and they can talk about what the science is.”

Neill models her classes on labs she worked on in college, and plans to take her biology students to the Oregon Zoo. “You would think that’s fun, but no! In my evil twisted way, I’m making it horribly boring,” said Neill. “They’re going to spend three hours staring at those animals, charting their behavior and then look at the ethogram ... to answer what their hypothesis was.”

Neill also plans on helping her students test the water quality of Butternut Creek, near the school. As a Hillsboro planning commissioner, Neill knows a new complex will be built near the creek. Over the next few years, her students will conduct a study on macroinvertebrates (wetland insects) to present to the city council and make suggestions about how to plan a clean community.

“I want to make science really fantastic here,” said Neill. “In five years, I’d like to have the best science program in the state. Or in the world, no big deal.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Holly Neill, a science teacher at Life Christian School in Aloha, offers suggestions to sixth-grader Antonio Tibbetts on how to improve his mouse trap vehicle. Neill is one of 50 teachers from across the nation who won a fellowship to the Siemens STEM Institute in Washington, D.C.



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