Brownell named Teacher of the Year
After 18 years of teaching, Lee Brownell is a believer in the effectiveness of interactive learning.
"I think children learn best by doing," said Brownell, who teaches physical and space science to sixth and eighth graders at Russellville Middle School. "If you engage them, they come up with more questions and it helps them understand what they're doing in class."
Brownell's ability to engage students is one reason why he was chosen as this year's winner of the Dr. Wernher von Braun Aerospace Teacher of the Year by the Huntsville chapter of the National Space Club.
"My wife teaches in Russellville, and she mentioned that he does a big space unit," said Gene Balding, a fifth grade science teacher at R.E. Thompson Intermediate School in Tuscumbia and vice president of the Alabama Aerospace Teachers Association.
"He sounded like a great candidate because he was able to get kids interested in space, so we put his name forward to the Space Club."
Brownell was selected among a dozen other teachers throughout the state who incorporate space into their curriculum and increase awareness of space science and exploration. The award includes $500 cash for classroom materials and an invitation to attend the black-tie Wernher von Braun Memorial Dinner in October.
Speakers at the dinner have included the former director of NASA and the CEO of iRobot, the company that manufactures robots used to search for terrorists.
"It's a pretty special night because they bring in a lot of interesting people to speak at the dinner," said Balding, a former recipient of the award. "Director David King from the Marshall Space Center is always there, and I had the chance to meet Dr. Jan Davis, a former astronaut who lives and works in Huntsville."
Brownell said space exploration is a natural curiosity for humans and has produced many scientific discoveries.
"It's very important as human beings to explore space, and if we stop exploring, I think it goes against our nature," Brownell said. "A lot of discoveries have come from space exploration, including battery-operated drills, microwave ovens, Velcro and even Tang."
Students in his classes participate in a variety of projects based on space.
"We do a lot of project-based work and hands-on activities, and we also write reports on different scientists," Brownell said. "Mr. (Michael) McCandless' seventh grade class shoots rockets so we measure their altitude and speed, and the sixth-grade students make travel brochures to another planet."
Erin Masterson, an eighth-grader at RMS, said Brownell's class keeps her busy.
"He does a lot of labs with every lesson, and we never have just bookwork," Masterson said. "He's a really funny teacher, and he's always talking to us."
Brownell said his teaching philosophy is simple – keep the students laughing and make learning as enjoyable as possible.
"In the past 18 years I have kind of figured out what works and doesn't work with kids," Brownell said. "I never liked having a teacher who just read out of a book and never looked up, so I try and incorporate humor into class and do my best to make learning fun."