Mundy's Mill High's Isdell wins science award
Teacher wants students to have passion for the natural world

Editor's note: This is the first of two reports on Clayton County teachers honored for their accomplishments by a major foundation. We will profile the other teacher, Reshawndra Hutchins, later.

By Curt Yeomans


Sabrina Isdell and her students found a surprise about three years ago when they sliced open their bullfrogs in a biology class at Mundy's Mill High School.

Full, bloated stomachs.

'I told them, 'Let's see what's in there,'" Isdell said. "Normally, when we get the bullfrogs for dissection, their stomachs are empty."

This time was different, however.

The company which provides the bull frogs for dissection in biology classes had fed the amphibians right before the frogs were euthanized. The students cut open the stomachs and discovered crawfish, grasshoppers and grass frogs inside the bellies.

Isdell and Pointe South Middle School gifted science teacher Reshawndra Hutchins were recently named as two of 10 Georgia recipients of the 2008 Siemens Science Teacher Initiative Award. The award is jointly given out by the Siemens Foundation and Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

The Siemens Foundation also awards 10 science teachers in New York.

Isdell and Hutchins will formally receive their honors on May 6, during a presentation at Fernbank.

"We look for teachers who are engaging their students, not just teaching the curriculum because they have to," said Jennifer Harper-Taylor, vice president of the Siemens Foundation. "These teachers are able to manage the balance keeping their students challenged and motivated."

Isdell has always been interested in the natural world. As a young girl in Warner Robins, she frequently brought home insects and small animals she found while playing with friends.

"That's gotta go," was the typical response from Isdell's mother.

In high school, her chemistry teacher showed her how the everyday lives of people are affected by science and its principles. She then went to the University of Georgia, and in 2002, graduated with a bachelor's degree in secondary education, with a specialty in biology.

"With the human body, I get a little squeamish, but I'm OK with dissecting animals," Isdell said. "I guess that's why I could never be a doctor."

The summer of her graduation she was hired by Clayton County Public Schools to teach biology at a new high school, which was still under construction. She was going to teach biology to regular level, and gifted students.

The school was going to be named Mundy's Mill High School, and the first few months of the 2002-2003 school year were spent in a modular classroom at Lovejoy High School. Mundy's Mill's building wasn't yet ready for occupation.

Harper-Taylor pointed out several reasons why Isdell was selected as one of this year's teacher initiative award recipients. Over the last six years, Isdell has helped the district roll out new Georgia Performance Standards for science, acting as a GPS coach, and professional development leader for other teachers in the school system. Her work with gifted students was also noteworthy, Harper-Taylor said.

She has had several students who have qualified for the regional science fair. Two of her students have even made it all the way to the state science fair, but neither student placed at the competition.

Isdell is also working on her master's degree in secondary education, with a specialty in biology, at the University of West Georgia.

"I love science," she said. "I'm pretty passionate about the natural world ... I guess it's the way living things interact with each other. Each one depends on another for food and protection."

Isdell said her goal is to get her students to share her passion for science through classroom exercises and presentations.

"The curriculum calls for students to learn about the 'big picture' first and then they go back and learn all the little details," the teacher said.

Isdell added that the dissection of earthworms, grasshoppers, fetal pigs and bull frogs at the end of the school year is the culmination of months of learning about cells and basic organisms.

"I love to expose my students to things they aren't normally exposed to," she said. "When most of them get excited because they can see how everything is connected, that just makes my day. When they get excited about learning, that's when I know I've done my job ...

"What I want my students to leave my classroom and take with them is that they can be passionate about something. For me, it's biology, but not everyone likes the dissecting, and that's OK."