By Bernie Petit
Her name is Cynthia Dey, but at Lake Wylie Elementary School in Charlotte, she’s known as “Dr. Dey-n-stein.”
It’s not because she’s anything like the eccentric scientist in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” from which her nickname is derived. It’s because Dey creates little kiddies crazy about science in her laboratory.
“The really important thing about elementary science is that children should be excited,” said Dey, a science lab teacher. “I don’t know which one of them is going to end up finding a cure for something or finding a way to fight forest fires without having firemen injured. They all have that ability inside them.”
That belief in her students – and her ability to bring out the best in them – is why Dey was one of six teachers from across the greater Charlotte region honored as 2013 Arts & Science Council Cato Excellence in Teaching Award winners last month.
The Cato Award recognizes teachers who have distinguished themselves in teaching art, science or history, or who have creatively infused art, science or history into the core curriculum.
Dey, easy to spot in the school hallways with her “Science Rocks” lab coat with posters about big science ideas on the back, stands out as the creator and director of the 250 student-strong Lake Wylie Elementary Science Night Out.
At the annual event, student stay after school for special activities relating to STEAM – science, technology, arts and math – while their parents enjoy date night. When their parents pick them up at 8 p.m., “they’re walking out the door talking about all the cool things they learned,” Dey said.
It’s more than Science Night Out – Dey routinely incorporates art, history, literacy and math into her lessons. Elementary students learn through singing, for example, and third graders use tape and craft sticks to illustrate how joints in the body work.
Dey, a multiple Teacher of the Year award winner selected for pro golfer Phil Mickelson’s Exxon Mobil Teacher Academy in 2011, said she loves to see her students make connections between art and science in her classroom.
“I have always been about integrating the whole person,” she said. “The art piece helps you communicate, think creatively and can make you a better problem solver.”
It is part of her educational philosophy, which includes activating student curiosity and prior knowledge to get them engaged in science.
But it goes beyond that. The student mantra around school is: We think about science all the time. Students take ownership of their learning by asking questions about the world around them.
“Elementary students are naturally curious,” Dey wrote in her Cato Award essay. “Science therefore is a good beginning place for learning to occur. Students observe and have experiences with the natural world and make up explanations about it based on evidence obtained from their inquiry.”
2013 Cato Award Winners
Cortney Cooke Davis, Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies, York County.
Kenneth Koch, Northeast Middle, Mecklenburg County.
Glenn Baron, Kensington Elementary, Union County.
Cynthia Dey, Lake Wylie Elementary, Mecklenburg County.
Wayne Phaneuf, Cuthbertson High School, Union County.
Allison Rayson, McAlpine Elementary, Mecklenburg County.