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Teacher a finalist for statewide science award

Sica doesnt like to lecture about chemistry. She prefers that her students are engaged in active learning. When the bell rings on Thursday mornings at Forest Grove High School, Jomae Sica is ready to turn on the Bunsen burners and talk about kelvins. But entering the head-space of 15- and 16-year-olds first requires a triumph over cell phones, earphones, constant giggling, chatting among table groups and science apathy.

Some teachers grow weary of that task and burn out. But Sica, who’s been teaching science for 15 years, is still up for the challenge.

“I love the challenge of changing their mind about how they feel about science,” said Sica, who has taught biology and chemistry at FGHS for a decade. “I feel inspired by our kids. I wake up everyday and think, ‘How can I do this better?’”

That attitude permeates her teaching — and educators have taken notice. Sica is heading to Bend Oct. 16 as a finalist in the 2015 Oregon Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching. There, she’ll be honored with other state finalists. The winner receives $10,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., for the national ceremony.

Sica was nominated by a Beaverton teacher she connects with as part of her inter-district work with the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) program, which she spearheads for the Forest Grove School District.

“She’s really, really smart and honest and helpful and everything and she gives us inspiration to focus on our studies and do well in school,” student Katarina Sebastian said of Sica. “She wants you to do things right and learn.”

Sica has enjoyed teaching since she was a teenager herself, first as a swim instructor and later at an aquarium after college. In those two fields, she didn’t have to fight to keep her students’ attention — one of her biggest current challenges.

Goal to create engaged citizens

Teaching a required class means Sica has to plan lessons for all her students — from committed science enthusiasts to those who’ve sworn off the subject. Not every student is going to pursue science, but they can all be informed citizens. Her goal? “For them to go out into the world and understand this world better,” she said. “I want them to be able to make informed decisions.”

In biology class Sica and her pupils talk about Genetically Modified Organisms and debate policies surrounding the issue. They investigate the rare metals used to make cell phones. They get their hands dirty making soap. They look at cell division and the risk factors for cancer — particularly skin cancer around prom time, when students often hit tanning beds. NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Jomae Sica walks around the classroom while her students work on their experiments. She tries to connect with each of her 30-plus students.

“I try to pull from what they love, what their passions are,” Sica said. “There are a lot of different kids with different interests, so from year to year we never do the same thing. I get to know them and build relationships with them.”

One student, for example, said he didn’t need chemistry because he was going into construction after graduation. So Sica will try to intrigue him with engineering projects and the study of angles and chemicals he’ll run across in that business.

“I want to see that reluctant learner of science say, ‘Maybe this is OK,’” Sica said.

Using laptops as simulators

When Sica was in school, she remembers sitting at her desk taking notes during science classes while her teachers prattled on about abstract concepts. Somehow she still came out loving the stuff. But she wants to engage her students more actively, which can be a challenge Sica said.

“It’s pretty much the only class we can do hands-on things,” said chemistry student Josh Cox, who said he’s not a science person.

During a chemistry class last week, Sica paired up and used laptops as virtual simulators to heat a box of particles, determining how many liters the box would hold if they doubled the temperature. Goals of the experiment include determining mathematical patterns produced by temperature and volume and using the data to make informed predictions.

“Ms. Sica is tireless in her pursuit of relevant, meaningful activities to engage students in the learning process,” wrote Ben Crabtree, a fellow FGHS science teacher, in an email. “She is excellent at developing activities for students to deepen the experiences in the classroom.”

Sica believes her students are most immersed in the second semester of chemistry when they scrap the simulator for real burners and chemicals.

Chey Phipps likes the class because in the last month she and her classmates have gotten to work with some “dangerous” substances, such as copper, alcohol and zinc, she said. Sica uses power law scoring, which doesnt rely on a points scale, but requires students to demonstrate a set of knowlege and skills for grades.

“I don’t really like science but I’ve learned a lot from her so far — and it’s only been a month and I kind of get chemistry now,” said Fatuma Abdi, a senior in Sica’s chemistry class who finds it difficult being surrounded by all the sophomores in the room.

While Amy Renzema and Sydney Arrington are science lovers, they often find their classmates’ socializing distracting, one of the plights of a single teacher trying to control 30 easily-distracted teenagers. But the two say Sica does her best to accomodate their learning styles with individual attention.

Stellar science scholar or not, most students interviewed agreed: Sica is patient, caring and dedicated.

“When you’re having trouble she takes the time to explain it,” said student Belinda Villanueva.

Michaela Ayres, one of Sica’s chemistry students, confirms that notion. “She’s really good at helping us. If we have questions she’ll walk us through it.”

As a new teacher, Sica heard a colleague’s comment that’s stuck with her all these years: “They won’t care about what you know until they know you care about them,” Sica said. “I’m living the dream. I really do love what I do.”