COLUMBIA — A bleached white skull sits on a shelf in a Fairview Elementary School classroom, loaned by a student to teacher Ragan Webb.
The winners of this years awards will be announced sometime next summer.
“What do you think this is?” Webb asks her first science class of the day.
The children look on, some in disbelief, others bewitched by the bones.
Shouts from the class: “A horse?" "A deer?”
Webb, 37, patiently waits through a few more replies before the she hears, “a cow?”
“Yes. A cow. Very good!”
She uses that as a jumping-off point to explain where the skull was found and how long the class gets to have it.
Keeping her students keenly interested in science is Webb's primary mission and one reason she is among the three teachers in Missouri to be nominated for this year’s Presidential Award in Elementary Science Education.
Presidential awards recognize up to 108 teachers nationwide every year in both science and math, with at least two winners from every state, one for each subject. It comes with a $10,000 prize for the winner.
Recipients of the awards will be announced next June.
Last fall, Webb was also recognized for her work when she received the state award for excellence in elementary science instruction.
“Fairview and its students have been very lucky to work with a teacher like Ragan,” Principal Diana DeMoss said.
On a recent Thursday in the classroom, Webb was reading "The Wise Woman and her Secrets" aloud to her 23 students as she glided around their desks.
After a few minutes, she stopped, flipped the book to show a coin on the page and asked a student, “Do you think this is the secret?"
“No,” the child replied.
“Very good, “ Webb said.
Next she queried the class: “Are they going to find the secret at the bottom of the well?”
The children had different responses, which allowed Webb to transition into how “reasonable predictions” are used in science.
Walking around the room, engaging each student and then addressing the entire class is a big part of Webb’s teaching strategy.
“Science is an active process … the more students see this, the less intimidated by science they should become,” she said.
The earlier children learn to embrace science and not to be scared by it, she added, the better chance the student has of a lifetime interest in the subject.
This is why she works the room — to show all of her students that science is something they can easily participate in.
Webb came to Columbia in 1994 as an undergraduate student at MU. After receiving her degree in elementary education, she earned a master's degree and was hired by the Columbia Public Schools as a science-teaching specialist for Benton and Derby Ridge elementary schools.
Five years ago, she began her current general classroom teaching assignment at Fairview.
Maintaining an interest in science for children is becoming more important as standardized test scores in science decline nationwide.
In 2008, the level of students proficient in science at Columbia Public Schools was at 41 percent. By 2011, the level of proficiency had dropped to 36 percent according to the website for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Despite this, Webb remains optimistic: “These test scores only show one window. I really can see positive growth.”
After 11 years of teaching, across a variety of curriculum, Webb said her resolve to effectively teach science remains unchanged.
“You have to go to where the kids take you,” she said. "It's about giving the children a foundation through which they will always have an interest in science.”