On an ordinary Thursday in an ordinary science classroom at Windham High School, the extraordinary Bethany Bernasconi begins her lesson plan.
The recently crowned New Hampshire Teacher of the Year starts with the simplest of questions as she walks toward the door to kill the lights.
“Does anybody here know who Carl Sagan is?” she asks.
One boy immediately blurts out “Tyler Seguin?” which is greeted by a few laughs from the students around him. Bernasconi only half hears the reference to the Boston Bruins’ youngest skater as she paces up and down the desks looking for any takers to her inquiry.
Nobody volunteers an answer, which allows her to dive into a passionate explanation of one of the most prominent scientists of the past 100 years.
As Bernasconi clicks on a YouTube video titled “Symphony of Science,” she is a step ahead of her curious pupils. The state-of-the-art classroom becomes flooded with a harmonious tune. It’s an electronic fusion of famous scientific voices, including Sagan.
She waits patiently for the four-minute video to finish before she echoes Sagan’s portion of the song. “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together,” she repeats.
All of that effort to drive home a simple sentence that will serve as the main theme for the next several classes. That the chemistry of a living thing is just as important as the biology.
But a funny thing has happened. About 20 sets of teenage eyes are gazing toward the front of the room, waiting for the next piece of knowledge. She has everybody's undivided attention.
While Bernasconi won over her biology classroom in less than 10 minutes, her journey toward getting in front of that classroom has spanned nearly three decades.
It all began with a three-year-old sitting in a field and dreaming of one day becoming a marine biologist.
“I grew up in the country and my students laugh all the time because I tell them my favorite toy growing up – and this is totally nerdy and totally cool – was my little red field microscope,” said Bernasconi. “I would go out and sit in the field and angle the sun just right with the mirror and spend hours with my microscope. Science is always what I’ve loved.”
That love only flourished from her time spent constantly traveling near the ocean with her family growing up. Trekking to places like Acadia on the rugged Maine coast or Chincoteague at the National Seashore in Virginia become a tradition for at least two weeks every summer.
Now Bernasconi uses what she calls the “mystique” of the ocean as a way to reach minds in her classroom.
“I think that’s one of my greatest tools in my teaching curriculum,” said Bernasconi. “Everyone can get a little bit excited about something with the ocean. It’s a great hook for students to buy into what we’re doing.”
But back when Bernasconi was 16 years old and already teaching her own course at a summer enrichment program for elementary school children, she couldn’t have fathomed the technological resources in her current classroom. On her quick order, each child takes out his or her personal MacBook, a sight that would surely make the late Steve Jobs blush. This is customary practice at WHS, and it transforms the classroom into almost a collegiate setting.
It’s only fitting for a woman who went through her undergraduate research at Boston University hoping to one day teach in college that her high school classroom plays the part. But it doesn’t stop at Apple products. It's about preparing those students using the products for life after their high school diplomas, which she thinks the school is doing a good job of through hands-on approaches.
“I think there’s a big shift in science education over the past few years to really make our classrooms much more inquiry based,” said Bernasconi. “That is don’t just teach science, but do science. The only way to really learn it is to do it."
It's a curriculum format that she has molded from her time at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts, where she taught on what she calls a "melting pot staff" of six biology teachers for five years before spending the last three in Windham's brand new facility.
She admits that she was never pushed by her parents to pursue a career as a professional educator, despite both of them having backgrounds in the field.
"It was more leading by example," said Bernasconi. "They knew me well and knew that I had my heart set on what I wanted to do. I think that their influence was much more subtle."
Those parental examples led her to figure things out on her own, which took two distinct realizations while she was studying in Boston. The first was that she had been teaching for a very long time, whether it be the summer camp when she was a teenager or later at the New England Aquarium. The second was that she had spent a lot of time in the lab, but the students were missing.
One Masters program and eight years of filling that void with plenty of students and Bernasconi is now an award-winning instructor. While she said that the process of becoming the N.H. Teacher of the Year was painstaking, with paper after paper and interviews on top of interviews, it would all be worthless if she can't prepare her students and leave an impression on them.
"You could be the most fantastic person in the world but if you're not actually impacting a student, what's [the award] for?" said Bernasconi.
What she doesn't know when she teaches, because it means being on the opposite end of the classroom, is that the impact is obvious. On that ordinary Thursday in that ordinary biology classroom in Windham, almost two dozen MacBooks sit open during a one-hour, interactive lecture.
Not one student deters from the task at hand. With the millions of distractions of a computer, from Facebook to games to ESPN highlights to Perez Hilton, all eyes are on isomer structures. That student engagement tells much more than any award ever could.
"We've been given a lot of freedom to pursue the ways that best engage our students and best help them to be successful," said Bernasconi. "I like to tell people that I don’t really teach biology. I teach students and I teach them how to be successful in a 21st century world. It just so happens that the vehicle I do that through is biology."