Susan Madden used to find science completely boring.
It was technical and confusing. The lessons were complex and irrelevant. Madden couldn't understand why it had to be that way.
Since then, the Davidsonville Elementary schoolteacher has built a reputation for enlivening her fourth-grade science classes by offering such hands-on experiences as scrubbing Chesapeake Bay oysters and sending experiments into space. She welcomes kids into class each day with the recorded sounds of birds chirping. And she keeps their interest in the natural world by helping them sell T-shirts to save the rain forests and take bird-watching hikes.
"Students have to see a reason for their learning," said Madden, who was recognized this week with a Washington Post Educational Foundation's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. The awards go to 20 private and public school educators selected by their school districts from nominations by principals, fellow teachers and students.
The $3,000 award is named for Agnes Ernst Meyer, an educator and activist who was the wife of Eugene Meyer, a former owner and publisher of The Washington Post.
Madden, 52, has been at Davidsonville Elementary since 1995. Although she first taught language arts and math, she switched to science two years later because she thought her own perspective as a once-bored student might actually make her a more effective teacher.
"They can't just see a lesson in a book or answer questions," said Madden, an avid lover of the environment who argues that classroom lessons have to be linked to the everyday world. "They have to know that learning has a purpose."
In the last six years, Madden has developed a partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to teach students oyster gardening, a project in which students spend Saturdays cleaning oysters to give them a better chance of survival. She has organized field trips to the Carrie Weedon Science Center in Galesville and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. And she helped a class in 2001 develop a science experiment that NASA carried into space aboard the shuttle Endeavor.
Davidson Principal Patricia Nalley said it is not unusual to see Madden preparing her projects for students in the early morning and working many hours after the school day ends.
"When you walk into her classroom, she's doing science and it's always hands-on," Nalley said. "The students are thrilled."
In nominations for the award, Madden was commended for taking numerous workshops and classes to expand her knowledge, teaching students how to make Power Point presentations after she took a course, and sharing knowledge about rain forests after she was selected to visit them in Costa Rica.
This is not the first time Madden has been recognized for her outstanding teaching. She was one of five finalists for the Anne Arundel County Teacher of the Year Award and recently was named a Fulbright scholar.
Madden said she is thrilled with the awards but attributes most of her success to her enthusiastic students, whose energy rubs off on her.
"I just really enjoy children and I look to them as our future," she said. "If I don't instill the desire in them to learn, then I guess things start to crumble."