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Atholton Teacher Has Winning Chemistry

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page HO03

Bonnie Luepkes scurried around her classroom at Atholton High School in a white lab coat looking over students' shoulders and answering their questions.

Junior Eric Brightfield, 16, squinted through a microscope. He and other students were trying to identify about half a dozen powdery white household chemicals -- such as baking soda and table salt -- through a series of tests. But so far, his group wasn't having any luck.

Teacher Bonnie Luepkes assists students in a forensic science class at Atholton High School. They are. from left, Meredith Seibert, 16, Jason Shafer, 17, and Sara Clementson, 18. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

"It looks like little balls of cotton," Brightfield said, looking up from the microscope. "I'm serious. Fluffy cotton balls."

"Cotton balls, okay," Luepkes said. "That's a good observation."

Luepkes, who has a master's degree in biology, knew the mystery chemical was calcium carbonate. With 30 years of teaching experience, Luepkes also knew Brightfield would soon figure that out on his own.

Her students and colleagues say her nurturing and hands-on approach, combined with a passion for science, made her an easy choice for The Washington Post's annual Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. The award is given to one teacher in each of the 19 local public school systems, and one teacher from a private school in the area. Winners will be recognized at a ceremony Tuesday in Washington and receive $3,000. Luepkes said she will use some of the money to buy a laptop for herself and will donate the rest to her school's science department.

Luepkes, 54, started her teaching career at Waterloo Middle School and taught briefly at Owen Brown Middle School, but Atholton is her true home. She graduated from Atholton in 1969 and has taught there for 27 years. All told, Luepkes proudly states she has spent more than half her life inside Atholton's walls.

"Every year you try to make something better for the students," she said.

Luepkes has continued to teach even though she has experienced health problems and has taught long enough to retire. She has mastered new technology, from surfing the Internet to creating PowerPoint lectures. Luepkes also helped develop Howard County's popular forensic science program, which started at Atholton. In its third year, forensic science covers such subjects as ballistics, fiber analysis and blood spatters.

Luepkes said the forensic program has helped buoy her enthusiasm for teaching. Next year, she will become eligible for certification by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Still, she said, she enjoys teaching more traditional subjects such as anatomy and physiology, even after nearly three decades.

Luepkes said she tries to bring practical elements to the subjects she teaches. She has brought in pictures from her mother's surgery to show students the stents in her heart. She brings in clips from the television show "CSI" to illustrate how forensic science is used in the real world and where Hollywood glamorizes it.

School is about more than just academics, however, and Luepkes is an Atholton Raider to the core. She headed the school's homecoming committees for its 25th and 30th anniversaries. And in 25 years, she has missed only four home football games.

"I live for my students," said Luepkes, who has no children of her own. Several of her students keep in touch regularly and e-mail her pictures of their kids, she said. "I feel like a grandmother."

Luepkes is now teaching her second generation of students. Atholton's athletic director, Chuck Fales, was her student, and she has taught both of his sons. She said Fales has jokingly given her permission to retire.

Luepkes said that isn't in the cards just yet. She would rather follow the advice she gives to new teachers.

"Just don't quit," she said. "If you really like teaching, just don't drop it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company