Fisher teacher spent summer on science

FISHER — There's been little time for sitting beside the pool, reading a science book and sipping pina coladas for Isaac Stewart the past few months.

In the summertime when the weather is fine, the Fisher High School science teacher has been about as busy as he is during the school year.

Maybe busier.

Entering his fourth year teaching at Fisher High School, the Knowles science senior teaching fellow has been:

— Working with the University of Illinois to help several students who are involved in summer research to set up, observe, collect and analyze data in an experiment that looks at mimicry in bumblebees.

— Participating as a teacher member of a workshop, Project Neuron science group, funded by a Science Education Partnership Award grant through the National Institutes of Health. The focus is to produce science curricula linking modern advances in neuroscience with high school level concepts.

— Participating in a three-day workshop that explored modern evolutionary concepts in the biology curriculum at the University of Illinois.

— And took an online course called "In the Field with Spiders" through the American Museum of Natural History.

The Dixon native simply loves science, most notably entomology — the study of insects.

He possesses the kind of excitement and knowledge of the subject that can inspire others to consider entering a science field.

Several of his students at Fisher High are considering going into the research field in biological sciences, he said.

The Stewart-led summer studies this year and the past few years have investigated the diversity and the decline of bumblebees.

"We've noticed they're less; they're not as diverse," Stewart said.

Even more pronounced is the decline in numbers of honeybees, which Stewart said are not native to this area and were imported here.

Stewart was part of a lab under UI Associate Professor Sydney Cameron that studies how bumblebee species tend to mimic one another's color patterns.

"In this area you tend to think black and yellow (as bumblebee colors)," Stewart said. "In other areas of the country they have different colors."

He said most bumblebee species' colors will look similar to one another in a certain area.

"What my students are looking at is what sort of causes that," Stewart said. "One of the hypotheses is that birds are feeding on bees, they might get stung by them and learn that is something they might not want to eat."

Because birds shy away from those colors, other species that look similar will benefit.

UI graduate student John Maddux, who has been a member of Cameron's lab, said Stewart and his students provided assistance locating data collection areas that had high numbers of the insects and good habitat for a broad range of birds.

Four students from Fisher High became interested in the project after Maddux gave a guest lecture on mimicry and the importance of coloration during Stewart's Invertebrate Zoology class during the spring. The students and Stewart assisted with setting up equipment and then worked together to collect the data during the three days of the lab.

"This involved inspecting and documenting any damage. Isaac and the students provided invaluable help that allowed me to spend those days working on other aspects of my project," Maddux said.

He said it was inspiring to see Stewart's students so interested in science and willing to volunteer outside of class.

"You can definitely tell that Isaac has a deep enthusiasm for inquiry and the natural world and that his students are able to see and share it," Maddux said. "I was also impressed by the quality of work exhibited by Isaac and his students and, as a result, would be very open to including high school students in my research in the future."

Stewart said the four students who participated are juniors "and are kind of at that stage where they are thinking about what they want to do. They've all mentioned maybe being interested (in entomology or other science field)."

The Project Neuron study allowed Stewart to find out what research is ongoing in neuroscience and neurobiology at the U of I "and how we can bring that into the high school classroom," he said.

In taking the online course on spiders, Stewart said it was valuable for its content information as well as networking with other teachers.

"Biology is an ever-changing field, and there's a lot to learn, and as a teacher I don't have the opportunity during the school year to take many college classes because I'm supposed to be teaching," Stewart said. "That's my job. So it's really awesome that the American Museum of Natural History offers these classes."

Knowles Science conference. He recently returned from a conference in Philadelphia conducted by the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, which awarded him a five-year fellowship that paid for his participation in the online course.

There he led a session of some of the material he has been working on, and he was able to network with other teachers.

Nicole Gillespie, executive director of the Knowles Foundation, said Stewart is in his fifth year as a teaching fellow. He was selected to be a fellow following "a rigorous process" that involved written application essays and transcripts. Finalists were brought to Philadelphia for a weekend of interviews and interactions with staff and interviewers.

Each year, 35 fellows are selected out of about 250 applicants, Gillespie said.

An interesting thing about Stewart, she said, is that "he's interested in being a teacher; he's also a scientist."

The mission of the Knowles Foundation is to improve science and math education in this country by building outstanding core teachers.

"Isaac is one of those," Gillespie said.

Able to connect. Barb Thompson, superintendent of Fisher schools, said Stewart is one of those rare individuals who is able to develop a great rapport with students while maintaining a high academic standard for them.

"He's able to teach to every level of student," Thompson said. "He's a natural in so many ways in being to relate to the students and working with them to learn and also leading them to learn."

Thompson said Stewart is able to work with students who may have struggled with science in the past and get through to them and make science a positive experience.

"He is deeply respected by his peers," Thompson said, "and works well in leadership positions in the school.

"We're thrilled to have him."

Stewart said he loves teaching.

He earned graduate and post graduate degrees from the University of Illinois.

"It's been a very rewarding career for me," Stewart said. "When I was in graduate school it was kind of a hard decision for me whether I wanted to stick it out as a research entomologist or focus on teaching, and it seems like every single sign seemed to point me in the direction of teaching."

And recent signs seem to indicate he made the right choice.

Most recently Stewart was named the winner of the National Association of Biology Teachers Outstanding New Biology Achievement Award for 2013.

"So, everything seems to be saying," Stewart said, "I'm doing an OK job."

Even if it doesn't mean much down time.

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