Visitation Academy High School biology students grew plants at home to breed for gene crosses and used algae beads as a model for photosynthesis and cellular respiration.
Though the lab work done from their homes wasn’t perfect, their teacher, Heather Essig, wasn’t deterred. “We’ll try again. It’s part of science.”
Essig needed to be flexible and creative in her approach since the students began the school year with remote learning before a scheduled Sept. 14 return to in-person classes.
An educator in Visitation Academy’s Upper School Science Department, Essig was named the 2020 recipient of the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for the state of Missouri. The annual award, presented through the National Association of Biology Teachers, recognizes an outstanding biology educator in grades 7-12 in each of the 50 states; Washington, D.C.; Canada; Puerto Rico; and overseas territories. Essig teaches Advanced Placement college credit biology, anatomy and physiology, and genetics to students in grades 11 and 12. Candidates for the award are judged on their teaching ability and experience, cooperativeness in the school and community, and student-teacher relationships.
Essig said it’s nice to be acknowledged, but it makes her uncomfortable. However, she enjoyed hearing from former students who reached out to her when they heard the news. Some are in science fields, including one who received a doctorate this summer. Some are in medical fields or science teachers. Others pursued unrelated fields and/or are stay-at-home moms. “I just feel blessed to see them grow into decent human beings,” Essig said. “At Visitation we definitely teach good science, but we also get to talk about what it is to be a person who cares about other people.”
The Catholic faith is integrated with everything Visitation does, Essig said. “The more we understand about nature and the world and science, the better we understand our faith and God and the world.”
Examining the intricacies of the molecular world leads to an appreciation of how awe-inspiring God is, she added.
The field of biology is changing dramatically, so students need to understand the science as well as have a foundation to make ethical decisions, the educator said. Her genetics class leads to discussions on what it means to be human and why all people must be treated with dignity.
Essig’s first forays into science led her to study animal communication and parasites. What she’s come to love is the blend of genetics and biotechnology, how it’s used to understand the unity of life and how life has changed through evolution. Visitation has provided good tools and support for science, Essig said. “We’ve been able to do things that you can’t always do in a high school.”
Essig said she wants students “to have joy and fun and to explore. They are going to have to work and explore to learn some things, but they’ll appreciate it.”