Hopkinton High School chemistry teacher Kristen Murphy said that she was not “a tinkering, robotics type of kid.” Skip ahead to this May when Murphy was honored as Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair High School Teacher of the Year.
The award, sponsored by Sanofi Specialty Care, is especially meaningful, she said, because her students wrote and compiled “kind and thoughtful” stories during the nomination process.
“It’s recognition of all the time and effort that goes into Science Fair, but also the result of having great mentors throughout my life,” Murphy said of the achievement.
Murphy is proud of the fact that for the past three years, Hopkinton Science Fair students have qualified to compete at the international level, garnering success there.
“That’s not usual for public schools to be so consistent,” she said. “It’s pretty unheard of.”
But she is just as pleased by the overall growth of the school club, which had 120 members this past school year. Mentoring students while they research and troubleshoot projects designed to solve problems represents a “full-circle moment,” Murphy said.
Her leadership can involve anything that excites kids, from the simplest project to an award-winning venture now pursuing a patent.
“Even if these students don’t win awards, there is a huge amount of learning and growth that takes place,” Murphy said. “Science Fair is a great opportunity for students to learn how to challenge themselves, do research and work in teams.”
“As a student, I did the Science Fair, and it had a huge impact. It made me fall in love with science,” noted Murphy (nee Baldiga), a 2006 HHS graduate.
She gives credit to science teacher/advisor Valerie Lechtanski, who sparked her interest in the subject and served as an early mentor.
Murphy received her bachelor’s degree in science from Williams College and a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. She said she chose teaching as a profession because she liked the idea of working with students but also just wanted to help people.
She joined the HHS faculty in 2014 and became advisor for the Science Fair program in 2017. Murphy explained that Science Fair is a hybrid of in-class and after-school work by students, and it can get very hectic.
“When 30 to 40 kids are in the same room using the lab, it is really fun and really loud,” Murphy said. “It’s a labor of love for me, but the club, I think, takes more energy than my other teaching responsibilities.”
Murphy expressed gratitude to the town, School Committee and HPTO, which provides a grant to buy supplies for every project so students can participate at no cost. “There is no fundraising by students, which is really special. That way, they can focus on science.”
Students qualifying for the state and international competitions have their trips fully funded, Murphy added.
She said the Science Fair program is in a period of transition. It is designed for ninth graders and open for all to participate and produce a project.
Sophomores now will take a year off, read and take biology or elective classes in the fall. The upper grades will work on more “sophisticated” projects. Experts from the field will give seminars, and students will get more into data science and advanced research, she said.
Murphy is excited about the changes ahead. “It’s great to see the enthusiasm in town for science and engineering and fun to be a part of it and help [the program] grow.”
Projects tackling issues like climate change or addressing medical issues or other problems are attractive to her, she said. “I love that students can say, ‘Why not me?’ and make it their mission to make change.”
Murphy is cognizant of the fact she has been mentored and encouraged throughout her teaching career and cited not only Lechtanski but other Science Fair colleagues/mentors Connor Zanini, Charlotte Shire and Tricia Noblett.
She also said members of the school administration, past and present, have had an impact on her career.
Murphy added that she was “surprised and very honored” to receive an award at the state level. She was touched that her students thought enough of her efforts to nominate her.
“The kids do really cool stuff, and it is a big honor to introduce them to high school science,” Murphy said. “It’s good to know I had an impact on them.”