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Teacher has the right chemistry

October 31, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

WILLOW HILL, Pa. - Students in Mathern Mellott's high school science classes have to study hard.

Seven hours of homework per week in his classes at Fannett-Metal High School is the minimum. Only two months into the school year, his chemistry students are a third of the way through the 32-chapter textbook.

"They have to do 90 percent of the questions and vocabulary in the book," Mellott said. "They'll fill a five-section notebook by the end of the year. The kids know it's going to be tough and they know they're going to have to work."

During a recent two-hour chemistry lab, students conducted an experiment to show the relationship between collecting hydrogen gas under water pressure and under mercury pressure. Students stayed on task, discussing the procedure and noting the results, while Mellott spoke with a visitor.

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Four years ago, seven students took the class; now, the lab is crowded with 25.

Mellott was named the Pennsylvania Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year recently and is now in the running for the national title. Mellott's school, located in northern Franklin County, received $10,000, which Mellott will spend on the science lab.

Not that he hasn't been upgrading it in the seven years he has taught there.

He has sought grants and used his own money to improve the lab, which was built in 1953.

"There were no hoods at the lab stations when I came here," he said. "Ten thousand dollars for the science department is big."

Mellott, 57, taught from 1971 to 1976 at McConnellsburg High School, then spent 20 years designing agricultural complexes to produce fuel-grade alcohol. He returned to teaching seven years ago. "I'm a far better teacher than I would have been because I was away from education for awhile," he said.

Mellott's teaching seems to have made a big difference - not only in students' career plans, but in the number of science awards students have earned.

Two former students are double majoring in biology and chemistry in college. Several of Mellott's current students are considering careers in science-related fields.

"For the past two years at the Franklin County Science Fair, we walked away with the lion's share of the awards," Principal David Shank said. "Last year, we won 76 of the 144 awards, all the cash prizes, most of the first place awards, and the Grand Champion award.

"He's more than just a good science teacher. He's a motivator and innovator," Shank said.

With 600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Fannett-Metal is the smallest district in the county in population, Shank said. "Mr. Mellott's plan is to have someone (from this school) win the state science fair."

Mellott said, "When I came to Fannett-Metal, it had the lowest esteem of any school I'd been in. No one had motivated them to step out and conquer the world. I expect my students to do their very best. I put a lot of energy into this room, and the kids respond to it. My goal is to be the best science and math school in the area. We're going to the top."

Mellott recently started a robotics club at the school because "robotics are the wave of the future," Mellott said.

Sophomore Amanda Crouse, 15, of Spring Run, Pa., said Mellott has been a leader in another way, too.

She said he was her basketball coach when she was in eighth grade. "He was awesome. He pushed us. It wasn't easy, it wasn't what we were used to. We learned a lot from him, and not just basketball. The only way we'll succeed is with team work. He does that in the classroom, too."

While Amanda does not yet have firm career goals, she said she is "leaning towards microbiology."

Troy Boggs, 15, of Fannettsburg, Pa., said he thinks the Wal-Mart's decision to honor Mellott is "awesome. He really deserves it. He's always trying so hard."

"I wouldn't have won if not for the students, the school board and the parents," Mellott said. "Good students make a good teacher. It's been a team effort."

Sue Hockenberry, library aide, said she nominated Mellott for the award "because he is a very encouraging human being. He is sincere, and the students see that.

"When he started here, some of the parents, including me, thought he was too tough and expected too much, but we have seen that he was absolutely right. He knows that if the material is made interesting enough, it will stir up their curiosity and they will want to learn."

When Mellott was presented with the award, "the kids were cheering for him," Hockenberry said. "They were so excited and happy for him."

"We are all so proud of him," Shank added. "We know what we have and we appreciate him."

Mellott is also assistant coach of the soccer team and coach of the unofficial track team.

Perhaps more important in an area where the poverty rate is 26 to 40 percent, he goes out of his way to help students find and apply for grants and scholarships for college.

Four Fannett-Metal students received McKelvey scholarships to state colleges last year, and three girls received Lenfest scholarships to college prep boarding schools, Shank said.

"Mr. Mellott keys in on the kids that are ready and gets them excited about it. That's what a community like this needs. He gives these kids hope."

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