Tacoma elementary teacher recognized by White House says science is crucial subject

During her visit to Washington, D.C. this month, fifth-grade teacher Angela Salo shared with teachers from across the country something she’s noticed in Tacoma.

Specifically, that some teachers can be a bit fearful of teaching science.

“It’s a little messy, it’s not as controlled, and it’s out of their comfort zone,” she told The News Tribune inside her DeLong Elementary classroom this week. “We need to have, as teachers, more of a growth mindset and just be willing to try it.”

It’s that open mindset that led the White House to name Salo a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation’s highest honor for teachers of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and/or computer science teaching.

“She’s gone above and beyond what’s expected of teachers in math and science,” said Eric Konishi, DeLong Elementary principal. “We are happy and pleased to call her one of our own.”

Salo, who’s taught for 22 years in Tacoma Public Schools, including five years at DeLong, was noticed for her use of hands-on lessons, organized field trips to study local environments and bringing in local experts to show off artifacts like animal skulls from the Pacific Northwest.

“When you bring people in that are actually in the field, and (students) actually see real specimens that are not just something on TV or on a computer, they make that connection that stays with them,” Salo said. “So when they go outside, they start looking around and noticing what’s in their own backyard where they live. They start paying attention to that and how they affect the environment.”

Four teachers per state were selected for the PAEMST this year in elementary and secondary levels. Teachers receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation, a certificate signed by President Donald Trump and a trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate their accomplishments.

There, Salo heard a lot of the same concerns from other teachers.

“I heard a lot of concern about that the schools are spending a lot of the day on just reading and math — which is crucial, not that it’s not — but that science is put on the back burner,” she said. “And for the (teachers), we think science should be on the front burner.”

When Salo started her career in teaching, science wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of her interests. She graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in reading.

“I really don’t even have a degree in science,” she said.

Her love of science blossomed on the district’s leadership team, where she learned about STEM education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It’s so important for kids to have access to science and math and engineering because we have so many jobs here in the United States, especially in Washington state, that if our kids are not getting this in elementary school, then they’re almost behind when they do the science classes in middle school and high school,” Salo said.

On Wednesday, Salo’s science lesson gave students insight to the orca food chain. Students were designated as herring, salmon or orca, and went around the room collecting plankton — in the form of plastic tablets — from one another.

What the students didn’t know was that some of the plankton — the red tablets — were actually toxins and pollutants.

At the end of the lesson, students said they learned how humans can impact the health of orcas. They also said what they thought they could do to help — like picking up litter on the beach.

Salo said she’s careful when teaching about some science subjects, like climate change, in the classroom.

“That can be kind of a depressing topic,” she said. “And they’re the ones thinking, ‘I’m going to grow up and there’s not going to be anything here; people are destroying the earth.’ So it’s kind of more making them aware of (how they can make) good choices.”

Salo wants to share her love for science with other teachers.

“That’s what we’re trying to push for — more realistic science that’s in your local area,” she said. “What’s happening here that (students) can connect to, and then bringing the reading and writing and math around that.”