September 14, 2016

Profiles in Education: Science in the Elementary Schools With Mark Eastburn and Martha Friend


Martha Friend

Mark Eastburn at Riverside and Martha Friend at Littlebrook are two of five New Jersey finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honors bestowed by the United States government for K-12 mathematics and science teaching. They are also the kind of elementary school science teachers who would make anyone want to start kindergarten all over again. They love the adventure of science, and they love working with young children. 

Both emphasized the importance of making connections — connections with the students, connections with the surrounding community. And both described their classrooms as “hands-on” places where the students are scientists, exploring many facets of the world around them with its plants and animals.

Mr. Eastburn and Ms. Friend both demonstrate the Presidential Awards stipulation that “awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of science education.”

Princeton Public Schools science supervisor Edward Cohen stated, “We are extremely proud of Martha and Mark. They both exemplify the district goals of innovation and experimentation in teaching. Their abilities to connect with the students in an exciting and passionate way while teaching a highly rigorous science curriculum makes them model teachers. Having two out of five state finalists come from our District signifies how we support cutting edge teaching practices in science starting at the elementary level.”

Turtles have been a big part of Mr. Eastburn’s career so far. (Check out his website for further details.) In 2011, after teaching Spanish at Johnson Park for 10 years, he wanted to come to Riverside because of the science job and the captive box turtle population in the courtyard.

“I knew I’d be able to work with the turtles,” he said. “I’ve always been a reptile enthusiast, ever since I was a kid with dinosaurs, then reading Jurassic Park in high school. “What I like about turtles is that they’re reptiles but no one’s scared of them. I also work with snakes and lizards, but a lot of people are scared of my snakes.”

He explained how turtles have become a central part of his curriculum. “Turtles are an effective entryway into herpetology, because I’ve never known anyone who’s scared of turtles. They’re coldblooded animals that have a completely different life style than the mammals we’re used to seeing.”

With support from professors at Princeton University and from a Princeton Education Foundation grant, Mr. Eastburn guided his elementary students through a population study of the 38 turtles living in the Riverside courtyard. In pursuing this project, “Understanding Genetics through Turtles,” the students have analyzed data through a series of engaging games. The project has grown with the discovery of 11 new hatching turtles and contacts with other schools.

“I really enjoy turning kids on to science,” Mr. Eastburn said. “I think kids are very easy to motivate because science is inherently interesting. I can’t take credit for that. Kids enjoy science and realize they can do science in my classes. What I’ve done is tried to innovate and make connections with the University and other organizations to enhance the opportunities that children have.”


Mark Eastburn

Pets and Projects

Mr. Eastburn grew up in Glenside outside Philadelphia. An only child whose mother was a nurse and father a special education teacher, he “had lots of pets growing up, so I’ve always had that affinity for animals. I brought that to my teaching.”

After majoring in biology at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, Mr. Eastburn joined the Peace Corps in Panama for two years “and that’s where I found my love of teaching. That’s also where I really learned my Spanish.” And also where he met his wife, who is from Panama.

As an agriforest volunteer working with rural farmers on soil conservation and re-foresting techniques in Panama, he “noticed that it was much easier to connect with the kids than with the adults,” he said. “That’s why I ended up doing a lot of work in the schools with vegetable gardening. Once the kids were talking about what I was doing, the parents would get interested. That’s how I found out that education with kids was what was for me.”

On his return to the United States with his wife, Mr. Eastburn completed alternate route certification at The College of New Jersey and started teaching Spanish at Johnson Park, “but I’d teach science to some classes when I had free time, and I’d always find ways to get science into the Spanish curriculum. The science aspect was always my passion.” Six years ago he found the opportunity to focus on his passion when a science teaching position opened up at Riverside.

Mr. Eastburn emphasized the advantages of teaching in Princeton. “It’s such a wonderful environment for improving and innovating in science education. There’s no better place that I could possibly think of to work as a science teacher.” In exploring the genetic analysis of turtles, Mr. Eastburn was able to work in a University professor’s lab as a visiting scientist.

“Children here bring such amazing things to the classroom,” he said. “I don’t need to teach at a high school to teach at a higher level. I have fourth graders who talk about quantum mechanics. You just know this is a community that supports science.”

Mr. Eastburn, 40, teaches all 270 students at Riverside, meeting once a week with classes from Pre-K to fifth grade. During the summers he teaches an intensive, five-week high school chemistry course at The Hun School. He lives in Levittown, Pennsylvania with his wife, 15-year-old son, and 12-year-old daughter.

In addition to teaching, Mr. Eastburn also has a passion for writing, and has just published a book, Earning My Spots, a story for young adults about a boy who turns into a hyena. “I wanted to combine science and animal behavior,” he said.

Animal behavior also figures prominently in his masters work at Villanova. He is hoping to finish his masters thesis — a comparative study of three different types of spiders — later this year. “Then I hope to get back to more fiction writing,” he said.

For Ms. Friend, it’s all about her students’ wonder, amazement, and questioning as they interact with the world around them. “What I enjoy most,” she said, “is nurturing my students’ sense of wonder. They all have it. Some might not realize or they may need me to remind them by slowing them down and drawing their attention to the mind-boggling awesomeness of a tree starting out as a seed that fits in the palm of your hand.”

Ms. Friend described her day at Littlebrook. “My role is not limited to my science lab,” she said. “My day might start with a child coming down before school begins to tell me a snake was found on the playground or a child bringing me a ‘dinosaur bone’ she found in the creek behind her house or a teacher asking me politely to catch, or kill, a spider in her room. That’s just from 8 to 8:25 a.m.”

Noting a few more of the numerous activities that don’t necessarily get into her formal job description, Ms. Friend continued, “My day never stops because if I’m not teaching a class, I might be meeting our garden manager in our garden or cheering our students in the cafeteria as they ‘stop, think, and sort’ with our new organic compost initiative or having a brief hallway meeting with a classroom teacher about an upcoming science unit, or walking our nature trail to prep a lesson, or bringing a teacher a few supplies they requested, or reaching out to a parent about summer camp options.

Family of Educators

Ms. Friend, 46, who currently lives with her husband, two sons, 15 and 13, and daughter, 11, in Lawrence Township, grew up in a world of science and education. She described herself as “a ‘university brat,’ thinking Princeton University’s Guyot Hall was my second home.” Her father, Professor Alan Gelperin, is in the University’s molecular biology department.

“Now it’s my children who love to go to Frist for lunch and check out what’s new in their grandfather’s teaching lab,” she said. “What lucky children they are!”

She went on to describe how her parents “seeded my sense of wonder. They taught me that life is full of moments of amazement as long as your eyes are open to see them.” Her stepmother is also a scientist, working for the FDA. She has aunts and uncles who are teachers, and her two younger sisters are also educators, one teaching sexuality education and advocacy; the other is an elementary school teacher in Bridgewater.

Ms. Friend’s older sister Sarah teaches at Littlebrook. “I have been lucky enough to teach with my older sister for my entire teaching career of 23 years,” Ms. Friend said. A fifth grade teacher for 15 years before joining the science department, Ms. Friend mentioned, “It has been an amazing journey to both team-teach with Sarah as a fifth grade teacher and then work with her as a colleague when I moved to the science lab.”

Taking what she described as “the six-year, five-school approach to college education” after graduating from Princeton High School in 1988, Ms. Friend finished at Rider University and did her student teaching at Littlebrook with ”the amazing, recently retired, Rose Saltiel. She taught me so much about actively listening to my students.”

For the past three years Ms. Friend has been part of a Teacher Leader program run by Raritan Valley Community College and the QUEST program at Princeton University. She is also the PREA representative on the Princeton Community Housing Board.

“This work is connected to my teaching,” she said, “because if students’ basic needs (food, family, and housing) aren’t being satisfied, how can I ask them to be invested in the wonder of our natural world?”

Re-emphasizing her commitment to making connections, Ms. Friend expressed her love of the classroom, “In teaching science I’m opening their eyes. What is our connection? What part do we play? We’re all living together and it’s all about connection. I want to help kids see the interconnectedness of all of us, to help them see the importance of choices they make on this planet. I want to make a difference and leave the world a better place.”

She concluded, “This an amazing school. It’s a community of caring people, and I can’t say enough about how I couldn’t do my work without being supported by my colleagues.”