Get caught throwing a paper ball in Mrs. Custer's class and prepare to die. Get caught in Mr. DeCook's class and improve your grade.
Nancy Custer and Edward DeCook, who, on one field trip, sported a tag reading "Psychoteacher," may take wildly different routes, but they arrive at the same destination: a classroom full of thinkers. When the California Science Center Foundation recently crowned them Science Fair Teachers of the Year, it confirmed what kids already knew about their commitment to excellence.
At Valley High School in Santa Ana, Custer's honors biology course is the kind that upperclassmen warn you about. "She doesn't push you," student Carina Martinez says. "She just expects a lot of you." Survivors say that once they succeed under a "boss" who demands professionalism at every turn, anything seems doable.
For more than a dozen years, Custer has motivated her students by presenting the fair projects they are about to tackle as difficult, but possible. This year, one student attached a compact disk to a dismantled household fan to build a centrifuge to test the effects of G-force on fruit fly mating. Another student measured how effectively her peers could detect lies.
"The incredible things teenagers can do," Custer says, "and nobody gives them credit."
For his kids at Casimir Middle School in Torrance, eight-year teaching veteran DeCook makes science seem anything but daunting. He disguises lessons as hands-on experiments and games.
"If I can teach them to think, I consider myself as having accomplished something," he says. And think they did this year: One student bred a strain of bacteria that no over-the-counter anti-bacterial agent could kill.
Even though word of paper-ball fights (sanctioned only as a pre-exam stress reliever) and other breaches of classroom decorum leak out, the students like to keep a lid on exactly what goes on during DeCook's science period. What, are you crazy? That might get Psychoteacher in trouble.