BUIES CREEK -- Mary Ellen Durham, professor emerita of education at Campbell University, has received the N.C. Science Teachers Association’s highest honor, the Vi Hunsucker Award. A peer-nominated award, it goes to the most outstanding science educator in North Carolina and recognizes outstanding lifetime achievements in science education.
"I was quite stunned when my name was announced,” said Durham, who learned she had received the award in November during the regional National Science Teacher/ NCSTA meeting. “What is so overwhelming is that it’s an honor by my peers. I’m humbled and deeply flattered.”
Durham’s career in science education spans more than 40 years, though she didn’t initially plan to be an educator.
She grew up in Cabarrus County, N.C., on Camp Cabarrus, a Boy Scout camp supervised by her father, Hubert Powell. Her earliest memories were walking around the camp with her father and being awed by the incredible beauty of the world. She fell in love with science, majored in biology at Greensboro College, and began her career working as a laboratory technician. Teaching never crossed her mind. Even when both of her parents suggested she might enjoy teaching, she replied: “Nah, I’ll never teach.”
But nearly 40 years ago when she moved to Fayetteville, N.C with her husband, an Army officer assigned to Fort Bragg, she visited St. Patrick’s Church. One of the church members approached Durham and introduced herself as the principal of the church’s school. The principal also handed Durham a church bulletin and said, “This might interest you.” On the back was a job announcement for a science teacher at the school.
The job opportunity haunted Durham for the next week. She eventually applied for and got the position. This was the beginning of a 40-year career in education that led her to teach at every level, from kindergarten to graduate school, at private, parochial and public schools in Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan and North Carolina.
“What really led me to [teach] is that I love science so much,” Durham said. “I was so fascinated with anything dealing with science -- not just biology, but anything -- and I was astounded by how little people knew about scientific phenomena. I wanted to share it with others.”
Durham was nearly 20 years into her teaching career when her mentor and friend Clinton (Jake) Brown, a former adjunct professor with Campbell’s School of Education, encouraged her to attend graduate school and teach at the college level. He told her: “Mary Ellen, You want your students to enjoy, understand and engage in science, and have a good learning experience. Have you ever thought that maybe you’re going about it in a too small of a way? What if you helped other teachers give kids a better science experience? Then you would be working exponentially.”
Durham went on to earn a master’s from Grand Valley State University in sciences and differential education and a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in science education with a concentration in interdisciplinary studies. She taught at Grand Valley State, Wesleyan College and N.C. State before joining Campbell 16 years ago. As a professor of education, she said she has tried to help future science educators “find ways to use their talents to teach well and to improve the lives of the children they come in contact with.”
She retired from Campbell in May 2013 but continues to serve as an adjunct instructor in the School of Education. She also remains active with the NCSTA as a member of the board and continues to conduct research related to both education and the sciences. Those projects include a longitudinal ecological study looking at the impact of human activity on streams and estuaries along the Eastern Coast of the United States, and educational research focusing on classroom dialogue, particularly on how teachers answer student questions.
“Answering student questions well is critical to the learning process,” Durham said. “When students ask questions about something they are learning, they are actually expressing intellectual interests and needs. How the teacher responds can either hinder or enhance student understanding.
“Everyone assumes that teachers do an extremely good job of asking questions; and in fact, we teach individuals how to ask questions,” she added. “What we don’t do is teach teachers how to answer student questions.”
In fact, she added, when students ask a question, nine out of 10 times teachers don’t answer the question; instead, they refer students to another resource because they are pressed for time. “With my research,” Durham said, “I’m focusing on how we can help teachers get through the lesson but seize teachable moments.”
Durham had a teachable moment herself this past fall. She took one of the classes she teaches at Campbell to Pilot Mountain for a geology study. She was walking a trail with several students when one of them suddenly stopped and said, “Gosh, Dr. Durham, isn’t this incredible?”
The student went over to a rock, ran her hand across it, and said: “I can see it. I can feel what has happened here. Was it caused by water?” The student, while standing on the top of a mountain, had discovered several colored layers in the rock formation that provided evidence that the area had once been subject to soil build up and erosion due to the wave action of an ancient inland sea. Durham thought to herself: “Well, Mary Ellen, this is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to provide experiences for your students that create a need for information and a desire to know.”
When the NCSTA presented Durham with the Vi Hunsucker Award in November, she was surrounded by current and former students, many of whom she taught at Campbell. Also present were many science educators and colleagues, several who have also been her mentors, including Brown. That made receiving NCSTA’s highest honor even more special, Durham said.
“It was a wonderful experience to be able to share this award with the people who have sat in my classroom,” she said. “I’m profoundly blessed [to be a teacher] because it gives me the best of everything. I am able to work with children. I am able to work with teachers. I am able to engage in my science. I am able to travel the world. I am published. I have wonderful colleagues and I have been able to raise and enjoy my family.
“I just am a teacher,” she added, “and it’s the best, most wonderful career anybody could have.” -- Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator