Top Missouri biology teacher at Hickman High School prioritizes research

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:56 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 26, 2013
Kalum McDonald, 15, and Chas Van Cleaun, 16, ask Pamela Close, their biology teacher, a question about the day's lesson Friday at Hickman High School. Close was awarded the 2013 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. Friday's lesson required students to rate different types of food based on their protein, lipid or carbohydrate content.

COLUMBIA — Through the main entrance of Hickman High School, down the left hallway and up a staircase to the second floor, Pamela Close's classroom, room 208, has the fruity-sweet smell of gummy bears.

It's a Monday morning, and Close's Advanced Placement biology class is about to do an activity on exponential growth. The students will use the gummy bears to represent population demographics. Close assures them they’ll get to eat the candy at the end of class.

"It is interesting that students seem to really enjoy learning activities that involve food," Close said. "But I guess you can't take the teenage boy out of a budding scientist."

Close received the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers in May. One biology teacher is selected from each state every year based on dedication to biology and originality of classroom instruction, according to the association's website.

Close found out she received the award on the last day of school in May. She was recognized for the honor Sept. 9 at a Columbia School Board meeting.

Nose in a book 

Close grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, in a working-class family. She was the first member of her family to go to college.

Her parents, especially her father, encouraged her to become an astronaut or a chemical engineer, she said.

"I never felt like there wasn't anything I couldn't do if I worked hard," she said.

As a child, Close loved science and school in general, but she especially loved to read.

"I remember being on vacation going out West through beautiful scenery, and my dad would say over and over, 'Pam, get your nose out of the book and look at Pikes Peak!'" she said.

Close loved science, but it was a high school biology teacher’s tremendous sense of humor, which he used in engaging the class, that made her realize her passion for biology.

"I will always be grateful to Dr. Kent for igniting my love of biology," she said.

Close earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1977 from Drake University and later attended Iowa State University to get a doctorate in genetics in 1993; the latter included eight years of research.

Now, after teaching more than 2,000 students since starting at Hickman in 1994, Close said she hopes she has ignited that same love of biology in her own students.

"Without my teachers and my parents' support, I might not have made those attempts to move from a blue-collar background to a professional environment," she said. "So I've wanted to be that conduit for my students as well."

Heart in the classroom

When Close uses activities such as the one with the gummy bears, there is always an underlying scientific principle she is trying to illustrate.

"I remember when we were learning about photosynthesis, we were able to use foil to block the growing of some plants from the light to see the important factor of light in photosynthesis," said Marina Steinhauer, one of Close's former AP biology students. "She just had a lot of other cool, tiny experiments we could do that really related to what we were talking about in class."

Steinhauer, now a student at MU, said she also remembered when Close would go on tangents in class about subjects that really interested her.

"Just being in her presence, you could not only tell by her voice and by what she was saying that she was getting excited, but also physically she was getting excited," Steinhauer said. "She used a lot of hand gestures to express that she really was passionate about what she was telling us."

Maybe that's why Close said the words "interactive" and "loud" best describe her teaching style.

"Most of my students could go to the bathroom and never miss a moment because they can hear me all the way down the hall," she said.

Close went to graduate school to get credentials to teach at the college level, but she said teaching AP biology in high school is the best of both worlds.

"I have the chance to be around people, the activities and the kind of character building that's all part of high school while, at the same time, I am able to teach a college-level class to incredibly talented students," she said. "I have the chance to help develop their minds as they grow and mature."

Steinhauer said she most enjoyed the way Close taught the students how to do labs in a way that would prepare them for college-level courses.

"She really cares about you getting something out of what you're doing in her class," Steinhauer said.

Close's commitment to her students stems from her desire to watch them grow and begin to engage with the material on their own terms, she said.

"One of my favorite aspects of teaching is seeing their understanding move to becoming engaged and excited and to then asking their own questions to fuse with their own creative thinking," Close said.

Steinhauer, who is studying to be a nurse, recalled that Close was constantly supportive of students' career goals.

"She was able to teach me things that I now use in college, like learning about metabolism and respiration in mammals," Steinhauer said. "So I think she was definitely able to push me along in the right direction."

Close does an amazing job teaching all of her students and deserves the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award, Steinhauer said.

"It’s really hard to come across a teacher like her that puts that much effort into teaching her students," she said.

Focus on research

Deanna Lankford is the program coordinator of MU’s Office of Science Outreach and the director of the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award. As the latter, she invites administrators from all over the state to nominate teachers, and a selection committee of about seven to nine community members, Columbia Public School members and college professors make the final decision.

Lankford said that Close had strong competition but that one thing set her apart: doing actual research with her students.

"She really is invested in engaging students in learning," Lankford said. "Her idea of learning is not a really good designed lecture — her idea of learning is engaging students in creating hypotheses and deciding how to test them."

Close said it’s an honor to have her career choice validated.

"I had always thought I would have a career in research, but instead I chose a career in teaching,” she said. "It’s nice to have that recognized because that was a choice that has been valued by others as well."

Hickman Science Department Chairman Dan Miller said he has been impressed by Close's creation of a successful AP biology course.

"She updates her content all the time," Miller said. "She has recently flipped her classroom to where all of the lectures are online, and the students have to take their notes at home so she can spend her time in lab in the classroom."

Close goes above and beyond in her spare time to mentor students on individual research projects that have gone on to win national scholarship awards in the past, Miller said.

"She really helps mentor them to the point where they are ready to go out and present that research, which is a pretty neat thing for a high school student to do," Miller said.

Close said she feels like she is accepting it on the behalf of the entire Hickman Science Department.

"I think teachers are undervalued in society in general, but perhaps this is one small way that the contributions of teachers are recognized because it’s not just my contributions," she said. "It’s a group award."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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Frank Schmidt September 25, 2013 | 5:54 p.m.

Congratulations, Pam! Well-earned!

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