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Kemp Primary teacher finalist for science honor

Photo by Jim Massara
Teacher Tonya Pugh shows her students Kemp Primary how plants live. She’s one of three Georgia finalists for Presidential Award honors for science teachers.

Photo by Jim Massara Teacher Tonya Pugh shows her students Kemp Primary how plants live. She’s one of three Georgia finalists for Presidential Award honors for science teachers.

HAMPTON — First-grade teacher Tonya Pugh teaches all subjects at Kemp Primary School. But her favorite? It’s science. She loves thrilling her kids by showing them how the world works.

“That whole innocence, that whole curiosity about the world around them, that interests me,” Pugh says.

Earlier this year, Pugh was named a Georgia finalist for the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science. She and two other finalists were recognized out of 21 Georgia applicants.

Pugh says she went through a grueling screening process — including 15 pages of paperwork and a video audition — after a Kemp parent nominated her. She was notified she made the cut in June. The National Science Foundation will choose the state’s top science teacher later this year.

Pugh, a 12-year veteran of Clayton County schools, credits her success in part to the district’s science endorsement program that allowed her to focus on her passion.

Also helpful — Pugh calls it “mind-blowing” — was a national science-teachers’ conference she attended where she could hobnob with her peers and even sample her own DNA with a swab. The result was a genuine science souvenir: a “cool necklace” with the coiled DNA in it.

“I couldn’t wait to get back home to share with my colleagues, to share with my students, to share with the community,” she says.

Her favorite demonstrations for students involve monitoring plants as they sprout from seedlings and demonstrating how water cycles through different forms.

“They can see it rained last night. Now it’s dry,” Pugh says. “What happened? They want to figure it out.”

The Presidential Award is the highest recognition a kindergarten-through-12th-grade math or science teacher can receive in the United States. Established by Congress in 1983, the program authorizes the President to bestow up to 108 awards each year. Since the program’s inception, more than 4,100 teachers have been recognized.