WESLEY CHAPEL — Lisa Peake isn't just good at her job. She's one of the best in the nation.
So good, in fact, that the Wesley Chapel High School chemistry teacher just returned from Washington, D.C., bearing the nation's highest honor in her field: the 2007 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
She and 99 other honorees met Vice President Dick Cheney (President Bush, for some reason, met with the New York Giants that day). She also had breakfast in the U.S. Capitol, dined at the State Department and won a $10,000 grant.
But perhaps even that lofty award doesn't quite do her justice. The 28-year-old teacher, now on extended maternity leave, taught a lot more to her students than just the worlds of math and science.
She taught them about the real world, too.
"Not all of my students are going to be chemists or engineers," she said. "But I truly believe they're all going to be problem-solvers.
"If I can prepare them to think critically, and to problem solve, I really feel like I'm preparing them for life."
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Growing up in Richmond, Va., she thought it would be really cool to be a college math professor.
But not as cool, she later learned, as chemistry.
"The chemistry was a bit more fascinating," she said. "The math is important. I do a lot of math in my teaching … but I enjoy the practical side of chemistry and how it affects us every day."
She earned a full scholarship to Clemson University, where she graduated with honors. There she met her future husband, Tommy, in a technical writing class for science and engineering.
It's also where she got her first bite at the apple of teaching: tutoring football players.
She would have massive linemen jumping up and down, pretending to be excited electrons gaining energy as they moved away from the nucleus of the atom.
"They'd see me around and say, 'Lisa!' " she said, "and I thought, 'How cool is it that they know me?'
"Then they'd say, 'She's my tutor,' and I lost all cool points."
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Hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water. In chemistry, it's called a synthesis reaction. Two elements come together to form a more complex element.
Peake could have gone to work in a research laboratory. But the synthesis just wasn't there.
One element was missing: the human element.
So in 2001, Peake went to work in a high school laboratory. She taught for two years in South Carolina.
"You spend a lot of time in a lab, and maybe you get to share it with someone else," she said. "You don't see 150 kids throughout the day, with all the personalities and different issues they bring to the table.
"That's what makes the job interesting."
In 2003 she got married. Her husband is a structural engineer and a job opportunity brought the couple to Florida. They built a house in Land O'Lakes and she went to work at Wesley Chapel High School.
Ellie Sikes is one of the parents there who recommended Peake for the president's award.
"She can go out into her field and make way more than as a teacher," Sikes said. "But she really connected with the kids."
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The presidential award is administered by the National Science Foundation. Peake's six-year career was graded by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators.
They evaluated her as a professional: her master's degree from the University of South Florida; her presentations to the National Science Teachers Association and the American Chemical Society; and her published articles.
They looked outside the classroom: She mentored teachers and tutored students. She reviewed textbooks, applied for grants and became head of Wesley Chapel High's science department.
And they looked in the classroom, grading her teaching philosophy and a video of her labs.
Peake is one of the youngest teachers to win the honor, but that doesn't surprise the person who nominated her, Wesley Chapel assistant principal Jennifer Crosby. She was impressed with Peake from the very first job interview.
"She was able to share hands-on activities and so many innovative ways she could share her love of chemistry and science," Crosby said. "She had a way of breaking it down so all the kids could enjoy it."
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Peake is the only science teacher in Florida to win the presidential award.
As a state finalist, she got to ride on a special plane that simulated zero gravity. As the plane flew a series of parabolas to simulate weightlessness, Peake and other teachers conducted experiments — and did some other stuff.
"We did the fun things like Superwoman or eating M&Ms," she said. "It was fascinating."
Science is fun. It's a message Peake works to impart to her students. But science is also demanding.
"She raises the bar on them all the way," Crosby said. "Some of these kids, they want to give their best, but they want to take a shortcut or hope a teacher slacks on them.
"But she didn't and they respected why she didn't. That's huge."
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So what's Peake going to do with the money?
She could get her doctorate or start a college fund for daughter Emily, now 15 months old. Well, with whatever's left of the money, that is: "I'm taxed on it," she said.
Peake might return to teaching for the 2009-10 school year, when Emily goes to preschool. When she does return, she'll get to enjoy the real reward of her job: the stream of students who return to thank her for preparing them for college, and life.
"It's the fact that what we were doing in our classroom prepared them," Peake said, "and they're successful because of what we had done."
Wesley Chapel High grad A.J. Sikes is now a senior at Georgetown University, majoring in chemistry.
But he wouldn't be, his mother said, if not for Peake's Advanced Placement chemistry class.
"A.J. got A's in freshman chemistry at Georgetown," Ellie Sikes said, "and no one gets A's in freshman chemistry.
"A.J. said it's because of Mrs. Peake."
Reach Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.