By 7th grade, her career path was set.
"I had two great science teachers," says Katie Duff, now 29, recalling Walter R. Sundling Jr. High's Kevin Keehn and Gary "Mr. B" Bartholomew during her childhood in Palatine. "The bell would ring and I'd be sad class was over."
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But the science never ended for Duff, who grew up to be a teacher at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine before becoming an 8th-grade science teacher for Hickory Creek Middle School in southwest suburban Frankfort.
Listing one of her hobbies as "geeking out in my classroom," Duff loves science so much that she wants to sleep with it.
Duff is one of six finalists in the Museum of Science and Industry's popular "Month at the Museum" competition, which gives one winner $10,000 and the opportunity to live in the Chicago museum around the clock for 30 days and report on the experience. Being a science teacher gives her an insight into the museum, and will let her discover secrets that others might not notice, Duff figures.
"She's the science teacher we all dreamed of having," says Rob Gallas, vice president and chief marketing officer for the museum. But Gallas, who lives in Palatine and will be just one of the judges, says the diverse group of finalists will make picking a winner difficult.
"We're really excited about the quality of the candidates this year. We have six finalists instead of five because we couldn't pare it down," Gallas says. "They are all curious, all adventurous, and all live life to the fullest. They get that science is at the heart of this and it's neat to share that with the world."
The public has until 5 p.m. Oct. 3 to cast advisory votes online for a favorite at www.monthatthemuseum.org. Duff's competition includes:
• Kevin Byrne, 33, a digital media analyst and marathon runner from Chicago, who used to work as a college-admissions officer and had a stint as a robotic-voiced "tube talker" for the Blue Man Group.
• Dale Fiste, 70, a former farmer and current handyman at a retirement community in downstate Malden, who sings with a barbershop chorus.
• Motoko Maegawa, 37, a middle-school educator and mom from Grosse Pointe, Mich., who is pursuing a master's of history degree at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
• England native and Fulbright Scholar Mike Wilson, 26, who has master's degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Chicago and works as an assistant producer at WBEZ-FM radio.
An estimated half-a-billion people read stories or saw reports about last year's inaugural Month at the Museum, says Gallas, who notes that is "the first time I've used the word 'billion'" when talking about an audience for museum programming. The 14-acre museum got nearly 1,000 applications this year, he says.
"I was in everything in high school. I was 'that' girl. I wanted to try everything," says Duff, who participated in everything from National Honor Society and the Foreign Exchange Club to Students Against Drunk Driving and badminton at Fremd High School. After graduating in 2000, she went to Augustana College in Rock Island.
"I've known for a long time that I was supposed to be a teacher," Duff says, recalling how she used to play school with her younger sister, Kim. "That poor girl did so many work sheets."
The daughter of Ron and LuAnne Pertl, who now live in Barrington, Duff is married to Justin Duff, who works in marketing. The couple has a Maltese-poodle mix dog named Wrigley, and Katie Duff writes a baking blog ("Cooking is exactly chemistry," she says) called www.dontforgetthesprinkles.blogspot.com. Her students are "thrilled" that she is a finalist, Duff adds.
"They were cheering and clapping. And then they realized I'd be gone a while and there was this collective groan, which made me a little bit happy and sad," says Duff, who would leave behind lesson plans for a substitute.
While she can't stop gushing about the "marvels" of science and her chance to live at the museum from Oct. 19 through Nov. 17, Duff acknowledges that she'll miss her husband and try to curb any unauthorized science that goes on in their home while she's gone.
"I may send in some family members," Duff says, "to make sure there's no mold or no science experiments in the refrigerator."