GLOUCESTER — Walk past the seventh-grade life science classroom of Peasley Middle School teacher Stephanie Sowers and sounds of laughing, singing and dancing may be heard on any given day.
"Mrs. Sowers makes school fun and engaging. Her passion is so obvious," said Jodie Simpson, Peasley's assistant principal. "You want to go in her class. There are cool things everywhere and it's a fun class with a lot of movement."
Sowers' energetic approach and the success of her students has not gone unnoticed. She is one of five Virginia teachers selected as state finalists for the 2015 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
"I enjoy my job," Sowers said in her classroom recently, preparing for the start of school. "I appreciate that I get to positively affect someone's life and the community."
"This recognition just validates all the hard work and energy I've put forth to help my students experience the wonder and the curiosity of science," Sowers said. "I work with some amazing teachers who put their heart and soul into providing awesome lessons and field experiences for our kids."
Sowers has taught at Peasley for 14 years. She came to the school fresh out of college after receiving both her bachelor's and master's degrees at Virginia Tech. She lives in Mathews with her husband, Trey, and their three children.
At the start of her career, Sowers said, her approach to the classroom centered more around books and paperwork but over the years that has definitely changed.
"As I became more confident, my repertoire expanded," she said. "I try to make learning exciting while making it applicable to each student's life. I try to think if I were in my class would I like it and if I had my child in my class would I like it, and even would somebody who is not like me be OK."
Sowers said her students come to enjoy games such as "Science Says" and goofy songs.
"Some are hesitant at first. To be silly is fun but it's a risk," she said. "But eventually they buy in out of curiosity."
Sowers has developed a strong relationship with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, working with its GK-12 mentoring program that brings graduate students into local classrooms. She also participates in hands-on training and field work at the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve managed by VIMS.
Sowers has inspired the entire school with her passion for stewardship and conservation, Simpson said. She started several recycling programs at the school.
Peasley was honored last fall for the 15th year for its conservation efforts, being named on of the 2014 Virginia Naturally Schools. The recognition program is administered by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Schools must apply for the program and meet several criteria, and must maintain efforts to continue to be recognized annually.
Sowers has been a key player in Peasley's repeated recognition. The school has developed a nature trail, in addition to an outdoor wildlife habitat area with a pond, stream and plant boxes. Sowers said the school has partnered with the VIMS and the Home Depot on several projects, in addition to its recycling program.
"I hope that the kids can see that we are all a part of the environment and ecosystem," Sowers said. "Our actions affect it and we need to think about what we are doing so we can have a healthy, clean, safe environment for everyone and in the future."
Sowers was chosen from 78 science nominees by a committee organized by the Virginia Department of Education for the presidential award. The award is regarded as the nation's top honor for mathematics and science teachers and recognizes teachers who develop and implement high-quality instructional programs that improve student learning. She was nominated by Patricia O'Leary with VIMS.
Simpson said it's a pretty extensive process to complete, including paperwork, essays and video interviews. President Barack Obama is expected to announce the 2015 winners next year. The winners will receive $10,000, a presidential certificate and a trip to the nation's capital.
Virginia's other four finalists are: Robert Carroll, Plaza Middle School, Virginia Beach; Blythe Samuels, Powhatan High School, Powhatan County; Kelle Scott, Robinson Secondary School, Fairfax County; and Camilla Walck, Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach.
"We are so proud. We have excellent teachers," Simpson said. "To have Stephanie get to this level is very, very exciting, and it puts Peasley on the map and brings to the forefront what our teachers are doing."
Hubbard can be reached by phone at 757-298-5834.