By Shelly Conlon, Waco Tribune-Herald

Waco, TX (AP) – From the communicator badge pinned on her shirt to the USS Enterprise lanyard around her neck and a classroom set up like a space shuttle, fifth-grade science teacher Teresa Kelm, or “Capt. Kelm’’ as she is known to her students, is using the final frontier to keep her Starfleet cadets engaged through exploratory learning.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports that because of her unique teaching style, the Texas Medical Association recently named the Connally Elementary School teacher the overall winner of the 2017 Ernest and Sarah Butler Award for Excellence in Science Teaching, according to a press release from the association. The association also named Midway Independent School District’s Holly Land, a South Bosque Elementary School teacher, as a third-place winner for the award. The group chose 12 winners statewide.

The award came as a surprise, especially to someone who has only been in the classroom for a year after a 15-year absence, Kelm said. Kelm taught high school in Midway, then became a drug representative before she was laid off and decided to return to education, she said. This was her first school year in a fifth grade classroom.

When she landed the job at Connally, a friend asked Kelm what theme she would use for her classroom. This was a new concept, coming from a high school, she said. Her new school’s mascot and the name for students in the fictional Starfleet Academy gave her some help.

“Well, they’re cadets, the Connally Cadets, and I love `Star Trek,’ so I said `Let’s do `Star Trek,’?” Kelm said. “That’s what made me start it.’’

Capt. Kelm is in big bold letters on the outside of the door frame. Inside, each of her four walls serves as a station to her space shuttle, with the labels “Operation Center’’ to the right for classroom notices, “Navigation Center’’ to the left for anchor charts to study, “Communications’’ in the back for vocabulary words and “Main Viewing Screen’’ at the front with a projector serving as if it were a starship’s windshield.

And as if she were portraying William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk, Kelm often stands in the center of the classroom giving commands on how to tackle hands-on lessons.

“I’m very proud of Capt. Kelm and all that she has done to create an engaging learning environment for our children,’’ Principal Gina Pasisis said. “She truly teaches the whole child by making sure students feel connected and valued as part of a learning community and by providing relevant academic experiences that challenge and inspire. She integrates all disciplines as well as social and emotional skills into her science class.’’

Kelm’s love for “Star Trek’’ started at a young age, she said. “It’s very cerebral. You have to really think,’’ Kelm said. “Even though stuff is made up, you have to really know science to understand some of the things, and I like that about it.”

“I like the characters and I always wanted to go into space, and following them along on their journey was cool because when I was a kid, I would imagine, `Oh, if it were me, what would I do?’?”

She works the concept of exploring space and science lessons through little “Star Trek’’ moments every day, she said. Class doesn’t start until her students recite a cadet pledge, and it doesn’t end without each student flashing Spock’s infamous “Live long and prosper’’ hand gesture as he or she walks out the door, making a “V’’ between their index and middle fingers and their ring and pinkie fingers with their palm forward.

All of this has helped her settle back into her role as an educator, she said.

Her lesson plans often involve video, audio or written messages from Starfleet Command about problems or missions needing completion based on something her students are studying, she said. Those messages often come from someone at the Education Service Center for Region 12 or a former co-worker who has a “Star Trek’’ uniform and knows how to set up a starship backdrop in videos, she said with a laugh.

“They always report back to Starfleet and whomever I’ve used to make the message. They’ll report back, and they’ll even answer back,’’ Kelm said. “We try to get the continuity of it, so it just doesn’t disappear in the cosmos.’’

Her Cadets, mostly 10 and 11 years old, jumped on board with the idea immediately, she said. Missions have included everything from making gliders out of Styrofoam plates to learn about the principles of flight, to building small robots to “spy’’ on a strange spaceship and communicate back to Starfleet, in a lesson on electricity and different forms of energy, she said.

FStar TrekIn December, the students even had a small ceremony in the cafeteria to earn their own communicator badges and be promoted to chief petty officers for doing well through the first half of the year, Kelm said.

Photo: Live Long and Prosper – Mr. Spock from Star Trek

“It’s like riding a bicycle. I’ve had to adjust down a little and get used to the emotional needs of 10 and 11-year-olds I wasn’t used to. At first, they were all wanting to hug,’’ Kelm said, making a cringing motion. “But now I’m like, `Give me a hug,’ because some of these kids need a lot of hugs and come from some rough backgrounds. If I can give them a little love today, then so be it.’’

As she looks to next year, she said her classroom will take on even more of an extraterrestrial feel, with more project-based learning and items like a Bluetooth speaker in the shape of Spock’s head, all so she can challenge her Cadets to boldly go where no student has gone before, she said.

“It’s the same as with school. The `Star Trek’ theme is something they can rely on and trust is going to be here for them,’’ Kelm said. “Through the year, I’ve had several kids go as we do a project, `I love science,’ or `I didn’t want to be a scientist, but I think I want to be a scientist now.’ And that’s great. It’s just about opening their eyes to the possibilities they maybe didn’t have before, and that school can be fun, and what you’re learning in class, you can learn outside of that.’’

Top Photo: Teresa Kelm with her students