“People don’t realize how much you can teach science at a kindergarten age,” says Pam Nolan-Beasley, a teacher at Waitsburg Elementary. But these kids are inquisitive little sponges, ever curious and energetic, she adds: “It’s a perfect time for science.”
Nolan-Beasley’s success at getting five- and six-year-olds—and their families—interested in science recently garnered her the Presidential Award in Mathematics and Science Teaching, an honor for the nation’s top math and science teachers provided through the National Science Foundation. One of two teachers in Washington to earn the honor, she was nominated by her superintendent who also credited her with convincing the school board to make kindergarten a full-day program.
Nolan-Beasley grew up in Colfax, with great memories of visiting her grandparents on their farm up the road in Dusty, where her own curiosity led her into meaningful learning experiences. “I grew up on that farm,” she says. She and the other children in her family made boats in their grandpa’s shop, collected eggs from the chickens, and rode horses through the wheat fields. “Out there,” she says. “You made your own fun.”
Now she helps her community’s youngest residents create their own fun. Using tools like paper cups and popsicle sticks, she concocts projects and experiments that give the children the fundamentals for scientific inquiry. She finds opportunities for teaching science nearly everywhere: in a song, in a writing assignment, even turning an ant invasion of her classroom into a little lesson in biology.
Science wasn’t Nolan-Beasley’s first forte. “In rural schools you do just a little bit of everything,” says the 30-year teaching veteran. Nolan-Beasley went to Eastern Washington University for college and later enrolled at WSU for her master’s in foreign language. Specializing in Spanish, she worked with high school students, teaching them Spanish online and in person in Walla Walla. A job as a reading specialist brought her back to work in Waitsburg nearly two decades ago.
In a small community like hers, which has a population of about 1,200, Nolan-Beasley has had many opportunities to encourage children and their families. “And there is a greater awareness of individual children and their needs,” she says. The thing that made her happiest as a reading specialist was finding children at home reading with their siblings and parents. “Reading at home is the number one indicator that a child will succeed at school,” she says.
While rural children don’t have resources like museums, zoos, theaters, and science centers that a child in a city might, they’re still taking field trips to wind farms and creek banks, and learning about natural resources up close. With the area’s rangers and ecologists, “there are many experts around,” she says. “We just have so much right here.”
Growing up in Washington, Nolan-Beasley developed a strong attachment to the landscape. “My family and I did a lot of camping around the state,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money for big trips to Disneyland. Instead we pretty much went out where other people weren’t.”
This exploration is a habit she and her husband continued with their sons, often setting out for Lyons Ferry and the lakes around Cheney. “And we have the Blues right here. People can ski and there are all kinds of trails.”
Once their boys started college, Nolan-Beasley and her husband Ken took up kayaking.
Nolan-Beasley shares her expertise with other science teachers through the state’s Leadership and Assistance for Science Education and Reform program.
Her national teaching award, which was announced last December, provided her $10,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C.
While Nolan-Beasley took the Presidential Award for science, Nancy Pfaff ’76, ’80 was honored for her work with math. She works in the Lake Washington School District and last year moved from Horace Mann Elementary to Blackwell Elementary and Thoreau Elementary schools to teach an enrichment program for gifted students.