By Dawn Rhodes
Downers Grove teacher Meg Van Dyke has a mission to get kids passionate about science. So much so that when she was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer late last year, the O'Neill Middle School teacher saw a learning opportunity for her seventh-grade students.
"She was lying at home and made a PowerPoint to teach the kids about her cancer," O'Neill Principal Matt Durbala said. "She took the teachable moment about having cancer, something really personal and private, and used it to help her kids."
Van Dyke was named a Golden Apple Award winner Thursday, one of 10 from Chicago and the suburbs. She will receive $3,000 and a tuition-free quarter to study at Northwestern University.
"I want kids to be scientists," said Van Dyke. "Anything that I can do to spark their interest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career, that's my main goal."
Peers, students and administrators think so highly of her, Durbala said, because of her tireless efforts to make science exciting and fun for her adolescent charges. She also has helped bring in thousands of dollars in grant money to the school, and has done fundraising to help other schools and organizations.
"She'll come in on weekends, she'll stay late at night, she'll work during her breaks to help kids," Durbala said. "It's all of those things on top of being an excellent in-classroom educator that makes her so great."
Golden Apple officials praised her efforts to promote sustainable energy and her role in research work at Northern Illinois University.
"Van Dyke is concerned about the future of her students in a world that needs a source of sustainable energy," Golden Apple officials said in a statement.
Teaching is Van Dyke's second career. She started college with aspirations to become a nurse, then fell into a career as a paralegal before switching gears to education 12 years ago. Van Dyke, 48, always has taught seventh grade and says she aims to keep her students active in class.
"Science is easy. You blow a couple of things up and they're hooked," she said. "I try to use humor, and I try to have them moving around. Even I get bored. I don't want to sit around in the classroom, I'd rather go out to Barth Pond and take some samples."
Van Dyke said she tries to push her students to explore topics outside of her curriculum, as well. Every week the students get free time to research anything that interests them. Some students also participate in science competitions, helping them see what other students their age are learning.
"We have kids making solar cars, we have kids building LEGO robots and doing other engineering projects," Durbala said. "That's one of the things that kids really enjoy about her."
Van Dyke has not been able to be in the classroom as much as she would like this semester. She spends alternate weeks at home because of chemotherapy treatments. Her last round of treatment is scheduled for later this month, and she says she is hopeful doctors will remove her abdominal port by summertime.
"I feel very blessed to be able to go to work and do what I enjoy," she said. "If I can inspire kids to become scientists, I'll do it for as long as I can."