A West Marion Elementary educator dedicated to teaching kids about outdoor science and the environment received a five-year $175,000 grant from a biomedical research foundation.

On Monday, West Marion fifth-grade science teacher Renata Crawley was awarded the 2019 Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The award provides $175,000 over a five-year period ($35,000 per year) to eligible science and/or mathematics teachers in North Carolina public primary and secondary schools.

“The schedule of distribution of those funds supports, equipment materials and supplies, as well as direct support for the proposal submitted as part of the competitive process,” said BWF Program Officer Alfred Mays. “We’ve had great success with this particular award.”

According to Crawley, the grant will be going towards “Nurture Your Nature,” which will allow for the creation of an actively-engaged outdoor classroom each year at all elementary schools in the district and also provide professional development for a team of teachers at each school.

“Every elementary school will receive an outdoor classroom each year,” said Crawley. “The first year will be host and nectar plants for butterfly gardens. The second year will be compost bins, the third year will be creating bird sanctuaries, the next year will be nature trails and the last year will be sitting areas in nature.”

According to Crawley, a team of eight teachers, one fifth grade teacher from each elementary school, will be able to take professional development throughout the year that has a focus on environmental learning. Money from the grant will also towards supplies at each school, including microscopes, magnifying glasses, field guides and binoculars.

“This award is life changing; I feel like it’s life changing for me, for our teachers and our district,” said Crawley in a sit-down discussion with Mays. “For a long time, I feel like our students are lacking in learning about the environment and their desire to go outside. I feel like it’s become less and less as we move into new technologies and I see it with my own children, so for several years I’ve been wanting to create something that will get kids excited about going outside again.”

Crawley later told Mays about ecosystem studies, the excitements in her students to learn science and the importance of studying in an area as lucrative in environmental beauty as the foothills.

“This year, I actually used our butterfly garden and we talked about the importance of milkweed and its role in the ecosystem and how monarch butterflies lay eggs on the milkweed, so we studied that and studied the effects of milkweed in our ecosystem and the harmful and beneficial insects that live in the garden,” said Crawley. “And so everyday my students would just love coming to school and that’s a commonality I find with students with my science class. They truly get upset if they miss science, and that’s what every teacher wants to experience. From that, I’ve developed lesson plans about decomposers, about invasive insects or birds or different things like that so they can learn the balance of ecosystems and the importance of balance in our nature. We are very lucky cause we live in a beautiful area and we’re at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and so I want our students to know that’s in their own back yard and this grant is going to help all the students in our district be able to do that and be knowledgeable about their surroundings and have fun as well and see themselves as scientists.”

Crawley, who had applied for the grant last year, was unaware that she had received the award until the actual day of the presentation. That morning, in a surprise visit to her classroom from her husband Greg, Mays and West Marion and McDowell Schools administrators, Crawley received a check for the grant courtesy of the BWF and was showered with praise.

“You all have a wonderful, wonderful teacher, but more than that, your principals, your superintendent, staff and faculty, and Burroughs Wellcome takes a lot of that into consideration when it identifies the talent that a teacher has and the impact that she might have on the classroom, the district and the region,” said Mays.

“Renata’s one of the most exciting people at this school,” said West Marion Principal Nakia Carson. “She’s always had a heart for children and makes such a different in all the lives of our children, and it makes me fortunate to have twins in this classroom along with all the other students, and she’s made a great impact among all of our students.”

“When Mrs. Crawley sat down and worked on this,” said McDowell Superintendent Mark Garrett, “and I saw the first draft, what hit me first right in the forehead was that this isn’t just about her and it isn’t just about the 60, 70 students she teaches a day, this is about all of the students across the community and leaving a legacy that even when she is no longer teaching that we will all be going outside and doing these things that add so much value to your science curriculum and everything that you do.”

After receiving the grant, Crawley proudly paraded the check through the halls, as the Kool & The Gang’s tune “Celebration” and student chants of her name roared around her.

“I don’t know what to say, because I’m so nervous,” said an awestruck Crawley to her students. “I will say this: the reason for this grant was to take everyone outside. When I was your age, I grew up walking the trails of Blue Ridge Mountains, swimming in Lake James, fishing, building forts in the woods. And so this is going to help you stay out in the woods and learn about the environment, because we live in the most beautiful place in the planet, and you’re going learn a lot more about it with this.”

For more information on the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, visit www.bwfund.org.

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