NORMAL - Thomas Holbrook struck a tuning fork in his advanced-placement chemistry class at University High School. As it rang out, he told students about a project he gave his class last year. They invented their own musical instruments and then performed for the class.
Up went hands of students eager to do the same this year.
"I'm up for it," one student said.
While another said he already had enough work to do, a third suggested it could be an extra credit project. "I'll consider it," Holbrook replied.
That kind of interactivity and engagement is part of the reason Holbrook was selected as one of the finalists for the 2006 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The award, established by Congress in 1983 and administered by the National Science Foundation, is the nation's highest honor for teachers in those disciplines in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Holbrook is one of 253 finalists nationwide. The 108 winners will be announced later this month.
"There's a lot of interaction and demonstrations in his classes. He is very involved and loves what he teaches," said junior Catherine Butts of Bloomington, one of his advanced chemistry students.
"He doesn't just explain things, he shows us," said Jason Mercer of Normal, a junior. "We do the experiments and come up with the ideas."
Holbrook said, "I like to work closely with students."
He said he believes students should get the chance to discover science on their own. "It's a longer, slower process, but everybody benefits," he said.
Many teachers say they were inspired to go into the profession by a great high school science teacher. That's not the case for Holbrook. He said he recalls sitting in class and thinking, "I know I could do a better job than he is doing."
Holbrook said he still uses that memory to shape his own teaching. He sees himself as more of a facilitator than a lecturer.
"By incorporating class discussions, I try to pull much of the information that I want to present out of the students. Collectively the students know a tremendous amount of science before they enter my classroom," said Holbrook.
Holbrook, a national board certified teacher, has taught 29 years. Most of that time has been spent at University High School, teaching mostly physics and advanced chemistry.
"I've started seeing the second generation," he said. "I was kind of dreading that, but it's not so bad," he said.
He has received other awards, but "nothing at this level," he said.
Holbrook said he was surprised and pleased about being a finalist. "It shows me we're doing something right here - not just me," he said, including the other teachers at University High School.