Debora Ondracek’s fifth grade classroom at Porterdale Elementary School is attractively overflowing with paper maché volcanoes, rocks, test tubes and aquariums.
The 25-year veteran teacher instructs self-contained students in all subject areas, but she is most respected and well known for her lively science lessons. Ondracek makes a point to provide her students with hands-on and creative projects that allow the soon-to-be-middle-school-students to draw their own conclusions about how and why things work the way they do.
According to Ondracek, she gains a deep satisfaction watching her students’ grasp concepts that could otherwise be hard to learn. Doing her best to stay away from too many work-sheets and written projects, she actively finds ways to stretch her students’ young and curious minds. In fact, before the year is done, her students will learn about geology, properties of matter, electricity, biology, magnets and even genetics. Most of these concepts will be taught through hands-on experiments.
"In fifth grade, their favorite question is ‘why?’ and I absolutely love that question," Ondracek said. "I try to offer my students lots of projects and open-ended tasks in order to allow them to each respond to the best of their abilities."
Ondracek said it was actually her son, who is now a geology major in college, who inspired her to take a greater interest in science and to develop an enthusiasm for sharing her knowledge with her students.
"He developed an intense love for science as a child, and it was very contagious," she said. "In fact, so much of what you see around my classroom-— books and science things — came from my son’s bedroom. I have just learned so much from him along the way."
It was Ondracek’s enthusiasm that sparked Porterdale Principal Lizzella Dodson to solicit her assistance in putting together a school science lab. Dodson, Ondracek and third grade teacher Kimberly Porterfield have been diligently planning to open a science laboratory for the elementary school in January.
Currently, the lab-to-be is full of tables, chairs and boxes, but the planning trio has big plans for what it will become. The lab, which is housed in a portable classroom on the school’s property, will be stocked with a human anatomy statue, microscopes, aquariums, terrariums, the school’s older/retired science books and materials and an assortment of odds and ends needed for standard as well as unusual science experiments.
Ondracek hopes the laboratory will be a place where students can go to get messy.
"Science is the most fun when it is messy," she said. ‘A lot of teachers don’t like to get their classrooms dirty so this will provide a space where kids can really get into their science lessons."
According to Ondracek, Porterdale Elementary was elated when Oxford College donated several microscopes earlier this year. The elementary school would welcome additional donations from the community in the form of materials (such as aquariums, telescopes, test tubes and even scrap lumber for building small things such as bird houses).
"We are also hoping to acquire a few small animals — fish, turtles, toads and small lizards," she said.
Porterdale Elementary already has a nature trail and butterfly courtyard. Ondracek said the students love taking an active part in nature and that the science lab will be yet another welcomed addition to the school’s learning atmosphere.
Aside from teaching and helping put together the science lab, Ondracek helps sponsor the school’s science club, which meets after school on Mondays.
"I absolutely love teaching the kids about science because it allows me to continue learning about everything," she said. "When my students move on to middle school, I hope they will take along a belief that learning is fun, possible, and empowering."