Picking up her phone a few weeks ago, Rachel Packer '10 could hardly believe her ears. The caller had a familiar voice, but the news he delivered took a few moments to sink in: Packer had won a Knowles Science Teaching Fellowship, supporting her master's degree and the first five years of her professional career as a high school teacher.
"I asked him to repeat it five times," Packer says of her phone call from the coordinator of the Knowles award.
A biology major and environmental studies minor at Franklin & Marshall College, Packer will put the prestigious award toward a 13-month graduate program at the University of Maryland beginning this summer. In addition to covering graduate school tuition, the fellowship will provide Packer a stipend and travel expenses for professional development. She will join a community of Knowles fellows who have demonstrated a commitment to teaching high school science across the United States.
Packer has been planning her career in teaching since last year, when she learned about the Knowles Fellowship while searching for post-college career options on the Internet. "I wanted to know who could help me get into grad school," she says. "But a lot of programs are sink-or-swim. Teach for America is eight weeks, and they throw you right in."
Packer has acquired experience in the classroom as a teaching assistant at F&M, helping with lower-level biology classes. She also poked around the College catalog in search of courses with a teaching component and found Urban Education, taught by Katherine McClelland, professor of sociology. "I didn't even have the prerequisite for that," Packer says. "But it's given me classroom experience."
Urban Education requires students to spend two hours per week teaching in the School District of Lancaster. Packer was so eager to gain classroom experience that she voluntarily doubled her time to four hours per week, teaching chemistry at McCaskey East High School during the first two periods each Monday and Wednesday.
The application process for the Knowles Fellowship also kept Packer busy. After a series of phone interviews, she traveled to Philadelphia over spring break to participate in an interview weekend with 23 other candidates for 12 fellowships in biology. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia, she looked around and noticed something familiar.
"Everyone was like me," she says. "I did research, but everyone else did research, too. I thought I was losing myself. We were all really enthusiastic science nerds who wanted to teach. At F&M, I'd say that I want to be a high school biology teacher and some people would ask me, 'why?'"
But Packer soon carved out her own identity among the crowd, becoming known as "the sorority girl" in the group. A member of Kappa Delta, one of F&M's three sororities, she was the recruitment chair for the Panhellenic Council last year. "The other students were really curious about Greek life, and we got to talk about it."
Packer remains in contact with several of the students she met in Philadelphia, and will keep in touch with them during the fellowship; the Knowles program offers opportunities for students to exchange dialogue throughout their experiences. "It gives you a community of people with a really strong knowledge of teaching and science," she says. "There are discussion forums online where you can ask questions of each other, and we'll also meet once or twice in person during the year."
At F&M, Packer recently presented a research poster at the spring research fair. She performed developmental and genetics research on Arabidopsis, a mustard weed.
"But I'm becoming a teacher for a reason," she says with a smile. "I loved the research process, but power to the researchers.
"I want to bring the fun of learning into the classroom. I like the idea of being able to reach out to someone and find their interests, and helping them to enjoy school."