Shared from the 5/30/2017 Austin American Statesman eEdition


Waco educator uses ‘Star Trek’ to teach science

Themed lessons challenge students to boldly learn.


Fifth-grade science teacher Teresa Kelm, or “Capt. Kelm” as she is known to her students, gives a lecture in her Waco classroom at Connally Elementary School.


WACO — From the communicator badge pinned on her shirt to the USS Enterprise lanyard around her neck to a classroom set up like a space shuttle, fifth-grade science teacher Teresa Kelm, or “Capt. Kelm” as she is known to her students, is using the final frontier to keep her Star-fleet cadets engaged through exploratory learning.

Because of her unusual teaching style, the Texas Medical Association recently named the Connally Elementary School teacher the overall winner of the 2017 Ernest and Sarah Butler Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. The association also selected Midway Independent School District’s Holly Land, a South Bosque Elementary School teacher, as a third-place winner for the award. The group chose 12 winners statewide.

The award came as a surprise, especially to someone who has only been in the classroom for a year after a 15-year absence, Kelm said. She taught high school in Midway, then became a drug representative before she was laid off and decided to return to education, she said. This was her first school year in a fifth-grade classroom.

When Kelm landed the job at Connally, a friend asked her what theme she would use for her classroom. This was a new concept, coming from a high school, she said. Her new school’s mascot and the name for students in the fictional Starfleet Academy gave her some help.

“Well, they’re cadets, the Connally Cadets, and I love ‘Star Trek,’ so I said let’s do ‘Star Trek,’” Kelm said. “That’s what made me start it.”

“Capt. Kelm” is in big, bold letters on the outside of the door frame. Inside, each of her four walls serves as a station to her space shuttle, with the labels “Operation Center” to the right for classroom notices, “Navigation Center” to the left for anchor charts to study, “Communications” in the back for vocabulary words and “Main Viewing Screen” at the front with a projector serving as if it were a starship’s windshield.

And as if she were portraying William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk, Kelm often stands in the center of the classroom giving commands on how to tackle hands-on lessons.

“I’m very proud of Capt. Kelm and all that she has done to create an engaging learning environment for our children,” Principal Gina Pasisis said. “She truly teaches the whole child by making sure students feel connected and valued as part of a learning community and by providing relevant academic experiences that challenge and inspire. She integrates all disciplines as well as social and emotional skills into her science class.”

Kelm’s love for “Star Trek” started at a young age, she said.

“It’s very cerebral. You have to really think,” Kelm said. “Even though stuff is made up, you have to really know science to understand some of the things, and I like that about it.

“I like the characters, and I always wanted to go into space, and following them along on their journey was cool because when I was a kid, I would imagine, ‘Oh, if it were me, what would I do?’”

She works the concept of exploring space and science lessons through little “Star Trek” moments every day, she said. Class doesn’t start until her students recite a cadet pledge, and it doesn’t end without each student flashing Spock’s famous “Live long and prosper” hand gesture as he or she walks out the door, making a “V” between the index and middle fingers and the ring and pinkie fingers with the palm forward.

All of this has helped her settle back into her role as an educator, she said.

Her lesson plans often involve video, audio or written messages from Starfleet Command about problems or missions needing completion based on something her students are studying, she said.

Those messages often come from someone at the Education Service Center for Region 12 or a former co-worker who has a “Star Trek” uniform and knows how to set up a starship backdrop in videos, she explained with a laugh.

Her Cadets, mostly 10 and 11 years old, jumped on board with the idea immediately, she said. Missions have included making gliders out of Styrofoam plates to learn about the principles of flight and building small robots to “spy” on a strange spaceship and communicate back to Starfleet in a lesson on electricity and different forms of energy, she said.

As she looks to next year, she said her classroom will take on even more of an extraterrestrial feel, with more project-based learning and items like a Bluetooth speaker in the shape of Spock’s head, all so she can challenge her Cadets to boldly go where no student has gone before, she said.

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