Pelican Award Winner: Pat Armstrong
By Corinne Saunders
COLUMBIA -- Pat Armstrong retired from teaching science at Columbia Middle School at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. What does she do with her first year of retirement? Promptly volunteer to help the teacher who was hired in her stead.
Armstrong earned a Pelican Award, presented Aug. 4 by the N.C. Coastal Federation, for her industrious creation of the school’s rain garden. A rain garden is designed to lessen stormwater runoff and flooding through strategic use of plants to absorb the water.
The annual Pelican Awards recognize those who effectively preserve and protect the coast. Although the award might have served as a final feather in the cap of a different teacher, Armstrong plans to keep getting her hands dirty.
“She volunteered this year to help with Science Olympiad and the rain garden,” said Jana Rawls, principal of Columbia Middle School.
Armstrong was the Science Olympiad sponsor for eight years and the school’s science club sponsor. Both of those activities’ hours were mostly outside of the school day, Rawls said.
Science Olympiad is a competition involving 15 to 20 events that include everything from a written anatomy test to tower building to designing a “mouse trap vehicle.” Pairs of students compete in a selected event, and the regional competition takes place at East Carolina University.
The challenge is “you never know exactly what to study for,” Armstrong said. Because they study with experts in the field related to their event, students in more metropolitan areas enjoy the advantage of having a larger pool of experts from which to draw.
Nonetheless, her students earned a medal “every year since I started,” Armstrong noted -- a fact that speaks volumes to her devotion to their learning.
Four years ago, Armstrong began incorporating environmental programming into her eighth-grade class curriculum, including planting and caring for the rain garden.
“She’s very dedicated to her students, always going out of her way to find different ways to keep them engaged,” said Sarah Hallas, coastal education coordinator for the federation’s northeast regional office.
Pat Armstrong sparked an interest in science in many students at Columbia Middle School.
Hallas worked with Armstrong to create lesson plans about hydrology for eighth grade. The federation acquired money for the mulch, topsoil and plants, and Armstrong decided the location of the plants and developed a maintenance program. She assigned teams of eighth-grade students 3-by-3-meter sections of the garden to weed and maintain as part of their science project grade.
After having Armstrong as a teacher, “just in general, the students walk away with more knowledge,” Rawls observed. “She’s very passionate about what she does.”
Armstrong and Hallas together organized an educational day during the last school year that focused on climate change and marine mammals, Hallas said.
“She had gone through some climate change workshops that year; I had had some climate change training, [and] we did team up to make that happen at her school,” Hallas said.
Science education has always been important to Armstrong.
A graduate of Roanoke Rapids High School, she earned a B.S. in vocational home economics teaching from ECU in 1971.
Her original dream in college was biomedical research, but after barely passing a biomedicine course, she changed her major.
“Science is still what I migrated back to,” she said. “It’s the area I’m most interested in. There’s a lot of science in home economics.”
Pat Armstrong supervises the planting of the school rain garden.
To illustrate her point, the name of that major has been changed in recent years, actually, to “family and consumer sciences.”
Not finding any openings in her field after graduation, she took a position as a secretary with a gas company in Roanoke Rapids. However, a home ec teaching position came up with Tyrell County Schools in August that same year, and she applied immediately.
“That’s what brought me to Columbia,” she said, adding with a laugh: “My father didn’t even know where Columbia, North Carolina, was.”
She was a 22-year-old teaching home ec to mostly 18-year-olds who were taking the course solely for an elective credit. The classes included boys who would routinely take apart the sewing machines instead of trying to learn anything, so she was eager to teach something else.
“I spent many afternoons putting sewing machines back together,” she said.
Armstrong transitioned to teaching girls’ health and physical education the next year.
Through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, she added certifications for teaching science and social studies for grades 6 to 12, as well as academically gifted and career explorations classes.
In 1976, she resigned for several years to raise her three daughters.
Armstrong returned to school, only to become a “roving English and social studies” substitute teacher, who did not have a classroom and had to move her materials after each class. It was the most challenging three months of her career.
She taught a self-contained sixth grade – meaning she taught all the subjects – when sixth grade was still in the K-6 school. Later, when the middle school was created, she taught mostly science.
Armstrong and her husband live in Columbia, as do their daughters, two grandsons and a young granddaughter Armstrong regularly watches.
Also in Columbia is Armstrong’s scholarly legacy: numerous students who had a genuinely invested science teacher.
And come spring, look for her diligently weeding the rain garden.