South Charlotte

Roving teacher spreads love of science

It's the rare mother who not only encourages her kids to play with mud pies but sits down to wallow in the mud with them.

Stacey Koval, 44, always loved playing outside as a child, and she wanted to foster that same respect for nature in her children.

She is the mom who took her daughters (Lauren, 14, and Ally, 12) and the other neighborhood children to the creek behind her house to look for salamanders, and she quickly became the neighborhood expert on bugs and snakes.

Koval also loved science as a child, and she wanted to instill that enthusiasm and curiosity in her girls.

"I was the type of mom who would stick a piece of bread under the cabinet so that we could see what kind of mold would grown on it," Koval said.

Koval now teaches science classes to preschool students throughout the Charlotte area, from south Charlotte to University City, counting more than two dozen preschools among her clients.

She had always planned on teaching, having returned to school at UNC Charlotte to obtain a bachelor's degree in biology and her teaching certification in 1997, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in business management from NC State University in 1990.

But her roving preschool science classes happened somewhat by accident.

It began with Koval volunteering in her daughters' classes when they were in preschool, and that led to other neighborhood moms requesting that she do so for their children's classes as well.

A neighbor then recommended her to the Jewish Community Center, where Koval taught a science camp in the summer of 2001. At the camp director's suggestion, Koval obtained a business license and her preschool science program was off and running.

Visiting some schools on a monthly basis and others for a season, Koval offers a variety of different classes and topics, all designed to offer her young students hands-on learning experiences.

"Everything I teach them involves having them touch and feel and do the experiments themselves," Koval said. "Except for the tarantula. That's the one exception. They can't touch that."

Her Creepy Crawly class introduces students to insects and bugs, while her Wonderful, Wiggly Worms curriculum is based on the premise that, as Koval puts it, "worms are our friends."

She also offers a Junior Paleontologist class, where students study dinosaurs and dinosaur bones, Paws and Claws, which focuses on animal tracking, and Kooky Chemistry Concoctions, which uses child-safe compounds like sodium polyacrylate (the water-absorbing compound inside of baby diapers) to make slime, goo and polymer worms.

Noting that "kids are not playing in the dirt the way they used to," Koval sees her classes as providing preschool-age children with an opportunity to experience nature rather than just reading about it in a book or seeing it on television.

"There is a fear of living creatures these days and a lack of respect for them," said Koval.

She feels a great sense of accomplishment each time a student tells her that worms are disgusting and should not be touched only to end the class by having one draped across that student's nose.

"I have to clear up a lot of misconceptions," Koval said. "I'm always shocked by how many kids have never touched a worm or a butterfly. What was always so normal and accessible for my kids is shocking and awe-inspiring for so many of my students."

Given the age of her students and the subject matter, there have been some amusing missteps along the way.

There was the time a Madagascar hissing cockroach crawled up a young boy's pant leg, or the time Koval was teaching a class on the five senses and a young girl had an allergic reaction to the cinnamon Koval was using to demonstrate the sense of smell.

The most ironic mishap occurred when Koval was teaching her Wonderful, Wiggly Worms class at a preschool across town. She inadvertently left the worms she was bringing in her hot car for too long and when she arrived at the school, only three of the 200 worms had survived.

Koval taught the class, gingerly passing around the three survivors who were barely clinging to life, and instead used a big bag of gummy worms to complete her lesson.

"I try to teach the kids that all creatures have a place in this world," Koval said. "Not all animals are cute and fuzzy and pet-worthy, but they should all be treated with respect."

Koval usually returns the worms she uses for her lessons to her garden or compost pile, but in this instance of inadvertent worm genocide she had to go with the saying, "do as I say, not as I do."

If the worm incident was the low point of her science-teaching career, albeit one she can now laugh about, the high point is every time a student's eyes light up at something Koval has taught.

Recently, a young boy whom Koval has taught regularly over the past year came running up to her after doing a chemistry experiment she had set up for his class.

"Miss Stacey, I love science," he said. "When I grow up, I want to be a scientist just like you."