Maria-Rose Cain, the middle school math and science teacher at St. Martin of Tours School in Gaithersburg, was named one of five national finalists for the Shell Science Lab Challenge, a competition administered by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), in March 2017. The award recognizes teachers who have found innovative ways to teach science labs amid limited resources.

Her classroom at St. Martin’s, where her dad also used to teach science, is adorned with planets hanging from the ceiling, a bulletin board with “STEM News,” and many student experiments sitting around the periphery. Last spring, her students had normal desks to sit in, and their limited lab tables only fit in the room when pushed against the walls. The small size and the wobbly structure of the desks made it hard to perform experiments on, and the otherwise limited supplies required that Cain was creative in how she did her lesson plans.

Always making an effort to maintain small group sizes, Cain uses innovative ways of teaching to ensure that everyone has a chance to do the experiment, even if there are not enough materials for each small group. An example of how she did this is through a game, where groups took turns creating mixtures in front of the class. The group would hold up each element of the mixture without saying what it was, then mix them together in front of everyone. Each group would infer what each element was and write down their guesses, competing to get the most right.

“A teacher is supposed to create enthusiasm about the subject,” Cain said. If the students don’t want to go out and learn everything about the subject afterward, she said, then the teacher isn’t fully doing his or her job.

Her goal as a teacher, then, is “to be as enthusiastic as possible and make the students want to learn.”

The 2016-17 school year was Cain’s first year teaching at St. Martin’s, but her four kids all attended and graduated from the school. Before coming to teach there, she taught computer programming at San Miguel School in Washington, and before that she was a freelance programmer and taught at Montgomery College.

“This school has been the heart of our family for 22 years now,” Cain said. “I’m thrilled to be able to come back and teach here.”

Cain views the award as being for the school as well, and is excited that St. Martin’s will be getting national recognition for its great science curriculum. As a part of the award, Cain had the opportunity to travel to attend the 2017 NSTA National Conference in Los Angeles, and received $3,000 in grants and $3,000 in equipment for the school. With the award money, as well as with an additional gift from the parish, Cain was able to buy a classroom set of cordless microscopes as well as new lab stations.

“It is a great reflection of St. Martin and the dedication to our science program and a testament to how hard the teachers work,” the school’s principal, Anthony Sahadi said.

Cain said she sees hands-on experimentation makes a large impact on her students when they get to see firsthand what does or does not work with their experiments. Instead of telling them everything that they need to know, Cain prefers to let them discover it on their own.

“I love when students are surprised by something that happened,” she said.

In addition to lab experiments, Cain has implemented several other teaching techniques that aim to improve the classroom learning experience. After hearing many students ask questions that she didn’t have time to answer during the class period, she implemented a “Wondering Why” project, where students were able to chose a question that had come up in class or that they thought of on their own to research and make power point slides with the answers to present to the class. One student did his on string theory, and another on dark matter.

Sahadi said he appreciates how at the beginning of the quarter, every student starts out with an A in Cain’s mind, and she will teach the lesson with repetition until every student understands the material.

“She puts students ahead of the curriculum,” he said. “Her teaching really is student driven. That is one of the things I love about her.”

Cain also hosts a weekly “lunch bunch” in order to get to know her students better. On Fridays, she invites about three students at a time to have lunch with her, providing each of them with a donut of their choice. During lunch, she asks them questions like “tell me about your favorite holiday” and the group discusses those things together.

Hearing the variety of answers to those questions is one of the ways that she experiences the diversity of the school, she said, in which there are more than 30 languages spoken in the students’ homes.

Through lunch bunch and her daily random seating assignments, where she hands students numbers that correspond with a certain desk they will sit at, she hopes to teach students that “not everybody is like you.” By working with new people every day, they will be prepared for the real world where they will not always get to choose who they work with.

“There are not that many schools around the country where it is such a melting pot,” Cain said. “…We think it is one of the best things about our school.”