Shawndra Fordham refuses to set limits for her students or herself. That's likely the attitude that earned her third place among hundreds vying for a coveted national science teachers' award.
The Rock Canyon High School biology and biotechnology teacher was among the top three contenders for the Shell Science Teaching Award, which recognizes one K-12 teacher nationwide for exemplary classroom science instruction.
“We do a lot of really innovative things here at Rock Canyon,” said Fordham, a 2013 Douglas County School District Apple Award winner. “We've done some high-level labs I've been told you can't do with high school kids. And I refused to believe that.”
One of those labs, now in its third year, has become a regular part of Fordham's instruction. Students shut off a gene in a microscopic worm, and by assessing the resulting mutation, determine the gene's purpose.
“That's a senior-level lab in a lot of universities and college,” Fordham said. “I want them to do the highest level, coolest stuff, so that we can get them really excited.
“We inevitably fail at something every year because we're doing such hard science. But they get so much from that too. I teach them to take a risk, be willing to fail, because maybe something will work and how amazing would that be?”
Fordham has influenced hundreds of RCHS students since she began teaching there in 2004, just one year after the Highlands Ranch high school opened.
While she didn't earn the $10,000 top prize, her third-place finish did come with a free trip to the National Science Teachers' Association Conference in Boston that provided fresh inspiration for her work.
“The kids in the biotech program here (at RCHS) are at such a high level,” she said. “To find other biotech programs that are teaching at the level we are can be really difficult. But they had so much there. I came home with so many ideas for my classroom.”