Maine West teacher takes a creative approach to science

Maine West teacher takes a creative approach to science

  • Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg talks with her students during an earth and environmental science class project at the school.

    Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg talks with her students during an earth and environmental science class project at the school. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Maine West High School science department chair Derrick Swistak, left, helps teacher Jennifer Ellberg set up for an earth and environmental science class project.

    Maine West High School science department chair Derrick Swistak, left, helps teacher Jennifer Ellberg set up for an earth and environmental science class project. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Maine West High School student Henry Lopez works on his class project with teacher Jennifer Ellberg.

    Maine West High School student Henry Lopez works on his class project with teacher Jennifer Ellberg. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg sets out spray paint for an earth and environmental science project at the Des Plaines school.

    Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg sets out spray paint for an earth and environmental science project at the Des Plaines school. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/25/2021 7:37 AM

Compared with many of her peers, Maine West High School science teacher Jennifer Ellberg was bitten by the teaching bug -- or perhaps, more appropriately in her case, teaching fish -- relatively late.

Ellberg was interning in the education department at Chicago's famed Shedd Aquarium, and she loved seeing the excitement on kids' faces when they learned something cool.

 

So, at 27, she made a career change and got her teaching certificate.

"I went into teaching to share that excitement of discovery and learning," Ellberg said.

And, wow, does she.

Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg works on a spray paint project with students in her earth and environmental science class.
Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg works on a spray paint project with students in her earth and environmental science class. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

In her 18 years at Maine West, Ellberg has built a reputation for using creative projects and her own experiences in scientific exploration to educate her students.

"She really connects with us," Maine West junior Henry Lopez said.

Ellberg leads two classes at the Des Plaines school: earth and environmental science and space science. She also advises several student groups, including an environmental awareness club.

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The environment is a particular passion for Ellberg.

"I have always been fascinated with earth science, oceanography and meteorology specifically," she said. "I went from wanting to work with sharks as a kid to wanting to be a storm chaser to forest ranger."

Ellberg's interest in astronomy developed later, while she was taking pictures of the moon for a college photography class. She sees beauty in deep-space objects.

Maine West High School students, from left, Roger Medina, Ian Takaces and Henry Lopez work on a project with teacher Jennifer Ellberg during her earth and environmental science class at the Des Plaines school.
Maine West High School students, from left, Roger Medina, Ian Takaces and Henry Lopez work on a project with teacher Jennifer Ellberg during her earth and environmental science class at the Des Plaines school. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

"When I look up at a constellation, I wonder about the hidden gems of galaxies, nebulae (and) possible habitable planets," she said. "There is so much to explore."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Science can be a tough subject for a lot of high school students -- it doesn't appeal to everyone. So Ellberg tries to reach her students in creative ways.

Recently in the earth and environmental science class, Ellberg's students used spray paint to design stars and orbiting planets.

"Think about Earth -- Earth has got the green and the blue, the water and the land," she said as they began to design their solar systems. "Think about what colors you would like for your habitable planet."

Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg.
Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

They did -- depicting solar flares, ice caps, planetary storms, comets and much, much more.

"I have a lot of students who have expressed interest in art," Ellberg said. "Why not bring some of their talents into the classroom?"

Students also have made pamphlets for their families that describe how to prepare for floods, thunderstorms and other natural disasters.

The students know its an important subject to Ellberg.

"She's actually done some storm chasing," junior Ian Takaces said.

Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg heads back to her classroom after an earth and environmental science class project.
Maine West High School teacher Jennifer Ellberg heads back to her classroom after an earth and environmental science class project. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

The environmental club Ellberg advises maintains a vegetable garden on campus, and members will donate the produce to a local food pantry.

Ellberg's efforts have earned her praise from peers and superiors at Maine West and within District 207.

"She has a unique skill in using creative visual projects to help kids practice and apply what they're learning," Maine West Principal Eileen McMahon said.

Ellberg's lessons don't end when the school day is over. If an interesting constellation is visible at night, she'll message her students via a school communications app and tell them to go outside and take a look.

"My mission is to show students how exciting science can be," she said. "I want them to walk out of class learning something new."

• • •

Curriculum vitae: Jennifer Ellberg

Name: Jennifer Ellberg

Age: 49

Hometown: Park Ridge

Job: Science teacher at Maine West High School in Des Plaines

Education: Associate degree, Oakton Community College; bachelor's degree in environmental studies, Northeastern Illinois University; master's degree in educational leadership, Aurora University

Professional experience: Five years at Grove Junior High in Elk Grove Village; one year at Naperville North High; 18 years at Maine West

Extracurriculars: Environmental Awareness Club, Science National Honor Society, Green Team District Initiative Program

Honors: National board certified in earth and space science; certified storm spotter

• • •

Jennifer Ellberg's tips for teachers:

• Teach what you love

• Never stop learning

• Work as a team

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