By Kim Johnson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Emily Firkus is a middle school science teacher a Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis who combines hands-on learning with real-world problem solving.

Over a year ago, a real-world tragedy shook her and the entire school, allowing Firkus to connect with her students in a way she never had before.

It’s what makes her an Excellent Educator.

Step inside Firkus’ classroom and you will find students tackling all kinds of problems.

“We are working on some design challenges to build a puzzle cube for children with cerebral palsy,” she said. “I love it because it’s all about problem solving and that is what students need to learn to do and sixth graders and middle schoolers in general are curious by nature and this class fosters that curiosity and we have a lot of fun doing it too.”

Firkus became an educator to be an adult that kids could count on. The purpose was put to the test last year after an explosion at the school killed two employees.

“That was a huge reminder for me. I kind of stepped away from that for awhile and this summer for rejuvenating, and I got the message over and over and over again, ‘Hey, keep building relationships with kids; that is what counts.’ And so that’s been a really big focus for me, and it’s rejuvenating my focus as a teacher and that’s awesome,” Firkus said. “This year I feel like I’m more engaged and more in my kids’ faces and trying to figure out what they’re thinking.”

Firkus set out to truly know her students in one of their first assignments this year.

“The very first design challenge that we did was having them create a 3D representation of themselves that represented their personality and they got to share that about themselves,” she said. “They don’t really care about any of the content if they don’t believe I actually like them and that I care about them and that I know them.”

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