Science is stumping many of us these days, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. Though it may be years before students of Saint Thomas Academy Science Teacher Lisa Clausen come up with answers, together they are already asking the right questions.
They discuss the Coronavirus crisis in a classroom. They experience environmental phenomena first-hand on the campus’s lakeshore and among the trees. While studying these subjects, they also learn how to learn.
Now in her fifth year at the Academy, Clausen loves teaching physical science, life science, and biology to her middle school and high school students, “trying to get to them before they develop a dislike for science,” she said. “It’s about creating a positive experience for them.”
Clausen’s desire to do so stems from her own positive early childhood experiences, exploring nature with her grandmothers. “I’ve always had an interest in the natural world,” she said. “My grandmas always had me outside doing things, hiking through parks or forests, around Lake Superior. We never sat in front of the TV. They instilled that passion for the outdoors and nature.”
Her sophomore chemistry teacher at Duluth’s Denfeld High School, Greg Moeller, predicted she would become a science teacher. Clausen saw herself more as a lawyer, and all it took to change her mind was earning a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition/Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota, a Bachelors of Applied Science in Teaching Life Science and Chemistry from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and a Masters in Learning Design and Technology from Saint Mary's University.
Clausen’s 23-year teaching career has included stops at public and private schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota, such as St. Joe’s in West St. Paul and South Washington County Schools in Woodbury, where she lives with her husband, Matt, and sons Caden and Carson. She has achieved the rank of Minnesota Master Naturalist and recently completed a three-year program as a Trustey Fellow through the University of Notre Dame, a program designed to improve and empower STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) educators.
“One of the things I really like about being at Saint Thomas Academy is the pursuit of excellence,” she said. “It’s a motivating factor. It creates so many opportunities for me as a teacher. There’s a lot of empowerment to go out and challenge yourself and your students, like being able to do the Trustey Fellowship. The freedom to do that makes our school better. We’re not locked into the state standards as the only thing you can do. School leadership respects and values our opinions, and they’re willing to listen. That’s extremely valuable because you don’t always get a boss who is willing to listen to your ideas. That’s a good feeling. It’s a fun place to work.”
All that freedom and passion gets passed down to her students, who gain opportunities “to be creative and be challenged to think outside the box, which is what we need from our future leaders. We need these kids to not be robots. We need them to understand responsibility and have that toolbox capacity for critical thinking and problem-solving. At Saint Thomas, you’re encouraged to do that. Sometimes, not having a rigid lesson plan and just having a discussion is incredibly valuable for students.”
Clausen capitalizing on that approach means her students learn much more than science. “It’s not just about learning a topic,” she said. “It’s important for students to be informed citizens, to learn how to work collaboratively, to learn leadership, and to learn how to respond to and manage failure. My classroom is a safe place for students to take risks. The Trustey program taught about ‘productive talk’ and teaching students how to navigate disagreements, which is a skill they’ll need as adults in our work force.”
Clausen also is a big believer in hands-on activities and challenging students to “re-think current ideas, to question, because that’s how progress is made,” she said. “My job as a teacher is to give them opportunities to explore, to question, to learn about themselves and how they learn.
“I make them work hard and do things that they’ve never done and aren’t used to. I don’t give them the answers. I ask them, ‘What tools do you have? What have we talked about? How do you think you might solve this?’ They have to learn that independence and confidence. Those are equally important as learning about chemical reactions. Empowering students is my focus so that they learn to think, ‘I CAN.’”