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Person of the Week
Elisa Brako: Passing On a Sense of Wonder
Elisa Brako credits “intrinsic curiousity” with allowing her to successfully share her passion for science with her students at Daniel Hand High School. (Photo courtesy of Elisa Brako)
A reason many shoreline towns including Madison are such an attraction to families, is not just because of the small-town water view locales and quiet streets, but because of their stellar school systems. One of the reasons Madison has garnered that reputation is due to educators like Elisa Brako who make the extra effort to not just teach, but to instill confidence and wonder in their students.
Elisa has been an educator for more than 30 years and has been a science teacher at Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) for the last 13 years, cultivating a unique relationship with her students and with her coworkers.
Elisa says her love of science has always been a part of her life.
“I guess I always was interested in how things work. I have focused on biology and biological systems and how they work, and I guess it’s just been a perpetual curiosity,” says Elisa. “Any discovery in science seems to pique my curiosity and I like to celebrate that. I am very passionate and find science so exciting. I have always found something to like, just intrinsic curiosity.”
Elisa tries to pass that sense of wonder on to her students as well. Elisa says focusing on critical thinking skills and data driven constructs is how she attempts to counter the trend in America of students falling behind in math and science.
“I really have seen a shift in the thinking about science and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. I saw students really try and grapple with data and we try to be more data driven instead of just rote memorization,” says Elisa. “I think we do a good job of that now, getting away from that style and toward science skills, and critical thinking skills. That’s what scientists do.”
Elisa has led several clubs at DHHS in her tenure and utilizes those to further enhance the thrill of science for her students.
The Eco Club was one she inherited when she came aboard at Hand and remains a favorite of her students, according to Elisa. The current project they are working on is a pollinator garden for the school. The large island at the front entrance turnaround is being made over by her students and will become a teaching tool for parents, visitors, and students.
“I teach mostly biology here, but in addition to that I teach some electives. One of the clubs is the Eco Club and through that club we decided that we wanted to contribute to the nation-wide pollinator pathway project. We wanted to be part of this network of restored habitat for pollinators.”
Elisa says the project got a bit sidetracked due to COVID protocols, but her students are back at it this year and busy creating a pollinator garden right in front of the school.
“We were about to start ordering plants in March of 2020 but that obviously did not happen, so that project is getting back on its feet. We are meeting with the principal soon to hopefully begin the process of purchasing plants,” says Elisa. “The traffic circle at the front of the school will be our locale for the garden.”
In keeping with her devotion to teaching, signs along the garden will identify species and provide information on what and how to plant your own pollinator garden.
“Thankfully we have had some wonderful volunteers who are master gardeners to help us plant this pollinator garden. Elisa says. “We are hoping to make it a showcase for the town and to make it as educational as possible and have signage and a detailed map so that people, if they want to, can find out what kind of plants they can put in their garden. We really want to use technology and signage to simplify the process of identifying and allow people to purchase these plants on their own. That’s kind of the point to get this idea to spread among others.”
Elisa says that her students relish the opportunity and really enjoy the hands-on work, the ecological benefits, and the passing of knowledge on to others.
“It is really exciting for the students because the women who are advising us, they didn’t want to just hand the kids all this information. So they really made the kids research all of the plant options, and when each of them flower so that we would really be able to have a good number of plants flowering during each season. They did a lot of leg work for this project. It was really well received and they are very excited that we are picking the project up again this year.”
Elisa says she has always had a real passion for encouraging her female students to think about a career in science or technology. Women are vastly underrepresented in these fields and Elisa says she consistently tries to develop that passion in her female students.
To that end Elisa has another club at the school to which she dedicates herself, the GAINS Club (Girls Advancing In STEM).
“It was formed to help underrepresented groups namely females, enter into or be exposed to careers that are STEM-related. I was really interested in starting a chapter of GAINS,” says Elisa. “We started that in 2017 and it has become really popular, not just for my female students but everyone.”
According to Elisa, there are numerous parents in Madison who have careers in the STEM fields making a fertile group to assist her in creating enthusiastic students.
“We would simply invite these parents in to share their ‘day in the life’ of being a nurse or an engineer, and it was really wonderful. The kids got a glimpse into what is this career really look like in the trenches from someone who was doing it,” she says. “They also shared their academic journey and relate to the kids of how they actually got to where they are.”
Elisa’s encouragement has reaped many rewards, including a number of her students who have moved onto science and technology careers. Creating a network of support for her students and helping develop their passion is a critical component of her philosophy of teaching.
“The point of it is to try and encourage these marginalized groups to go and seek a career. I am very passionate about that, to see former students so eager to give back has been very rewarding,” says Elisa. “To see them be a mentor to others and give back is exciting. I put my heart and soul into these two clubs…The reward is just to watch the students flourish and get so much out of the experience.”