April 20, 2016

Meet Leslie Lynch: Champion of the unexpected

The call of the classroom runs strong in Leslie Lynch’s blood. With her own mother only recently retiring after 30 years as a special-needs teacher, Lynch truly believes teaching is more than her vocation. It’s her calling. At the age of 30, she left behind a successful career in business to become an educator. Now, with 14 years of teaching under her belt, Lynch can’t imagine doing anything else, and her passion for science is electric.

“To be a science teacher is the best job possible,” she exclaimed. “These kids love science. They love using their hands to make things and see how things work. It’s an adventure and they love it.” 

A Florida transplant and Nebraska native, Lynch planted roots at Murray Middle School in Stuart, Florida. As Murray’s eighth-grade science teacher, she was brought on as the program liaison when the Tiger Woods Learning Center arrived on campus in August 2011. Lynch, who ran the program for four years and recently stepped down to pursue a Master’s degree, saw first-hand the enthusiasm that the TWLC curriculum sparked in her kids. Student favorites ranged from biology-based projects, like extracting the DNA of strawberries and dissecting frogs and starfish, to chemistry-based projects, such as making silly putty, ice cream and glow sticks. 

“The fun of the Tiger Woods Learning Center is that it’s a community,” Lynch said. “The kids are all working together, and you as a teacher are right in there with them. If you want to try something, it gives you a lot of freedom to explore with the kids and really get them thinking about science and what this means.” 

Gyla Bell, senior director of programs at TWLC’s flagship facility in Anaheim, credits Lynch with breathing life into the program. 

“Leslie is a dynamic teacher. She truly shaped the program at Murray, modifying it to meet the needs of the students,” Bell explained. “She researched and planned field trips that aligned with our curriculum. She had great relationships with all of the students, and there was always a waiting list to participate in the program.”

Leslie Lynch chatting with Tiger Woods Learning Center instructor Thomas Hailu

Lynch definitely took the initiative to enhance the TWLC experience for her students. Through various field trips, she exposed students to real-world careers that correlated to the program’s themes each semester. Lynch organized numerous visits to the Martin County Sheriff’s Department for the forensic science program participants. 

“They brought them into the crime lab, and took them to this place called the dirty garage to view evidence, like smashed up cars and crime scene photos,” she explained. “The kids loved it!” 

Students enrolled in this semester’s rockets and wearable electronics workshops will visit the Kennedy Space Center. 

Beyond TWLC’S introduction of project-based STEM curriculum and funding for field trips, Lynch believes the after-school program allowed certain students to step out of their shell and hone their leadership skills. 

“Students had to lead groups; they had to instruct,” she said. “That’s where the program really turned the light on for them, allowing kids to blossom and believe that they can do this.” 

While TWLC provides state-of-the-art technology and high-quality experiences in STEM, it takes a truly remarkable teacher to spark a student’s mind and ignite their imagination. Lynch is that teacher. Colleagues praise the family-like atmosphere in her classroom. She regularly invites students to eat lunch with her, and she routinely takes the time to call parents, offering positive feedback, especially if she knows the student is struggling in another class. 

“If you can give them little success in your classroom, you get them so excited,” Lynch said. 

She shares the story of a student who struggled in school but finally found joy in the after-school program’s video-design class. Lynch encouraged her to run with that passion and to see it through. 

“She is studying digital design in high school,” Lynch reported. “Kids like that, it was just one thing that changed their path.” 

Leslie Lynch and the Honda Classic present a check to the Tiger Woods Foundation

In speaking to her students, two things are clear: Lynch is passionate about science, but she is more passionate about her students. Ryan Wu, a TWLC student since its inception at Murray and a current high school sophomore, returns regularly to the middle school to serve as the program’s volunteer. Lynch never failed to keep Wu challenged and excited both in her own classroom and at the TWLC lab. 

“She would always set up interactive labs that would relate to the ideas we were learning. Sometimes we had stations, and on other days we created edible models. But no matter what, I knew I would always have fun.” 

And for Lynch, she recalls the pure excitement Wu had when dissecting various specimens. 

“He did them better than I did,” Lynch remarked with much pride in her voice. 

His natural skill earned him the nickname Doctor Wu. 

For Shantanu Jakhete, another TWLC alum and current high school junior, the program provided STEM immersion on a whole new level. Lynch’s TWLC program gave Jakhete an edge in his freshman biology class. 

“Whereas most of the students had a very hard time dissecting, I had a very easy time,” he said. “All of the methods for using the scalpel, pins and the tweezers were things I learned from Ms. Lynch and TWLC, and I owe so much to her and the program.” 

With plans to study engineering in college, Jakhete openly thanks his teacher for kick-starting this passion. 

“Ms. Lynch would always demonstrate how our everyday lives are impacted by the science we learn, and this really inspired me to pursue STEM after leaving middle school.”

Former TWLC student Greg Lukens echoes a similar sentiment and speaks to Lynch’s engagement with the students.

“Because of this enthusiasm, she gets students and people who normally weren’t interested in science engaged in science, and makes it exciting, which was a crucial aspect of TWLC after-school program,” he said. “She has inspired me to take a different outlook on science, to not only be interested by it, but to have fun and love science.”

Lynch’s genuine enthusiasm for all her students is evident, but she candidly reveals that her real passion is creating a lasting interest in STEM amongst her female students. She took her passion and turned it into something tangible: Girls Exploring Math and Science, fondly referred to as GEMS. 

“Eighth grade is the year that girls drop off in STEM,” Lynch said. “That was kind of my goal with them — spark the interest and get them to keep it.” 

Now in its second year, Lynch organizes an annual GEMS conference for all of Murray’s eighth-grade girls. They meet with professional female mentors from the district and fill out a road map that helps them focus their coursework for high school, college and beyond. Through a relationship with Florida Atlantic University, facilitated by TWLC, this year Lynch was given the opportunity to invite 20 girls who have demonstrated a budding interest in STEM on a field trip to the FAU medical center, where they had the opportunity to diagnose real-life symptoms on simulated mannequins. 

Leslie Lynch teaching STEM education at the FAU medical center

From a surprise visit by Tiger Woods himself to watching Murray’s assistant principal dress up as a bandit for a school-wide crime scene investigation, Lynch looks back at some of the lasting moments that have shaped her career as a teacher. 

“We got a lot of great curriculum from TWLC, but we got so much great support from the team in Anaheim. And I am so lucky I have that relationship. I have had the best experience with the Tiger Woods Learning Center; it’s been a blessing in my life,” Lynch said. 

The Learning Center’s innovative STEM programming coupled with Lynch’s innate love of science and magnetic approach to teaching have allowed her students to believe that they can have a career in STEM, should they want it. Her current eighth graders have already signed up for their freshman year high school classes, with many of them selecting medical academy or veterinary academy electives. 

“I was just so excited by that because that shows that they are realizing they can do this; they’ve got this,” Lynch said. 

And for Lynch, TWLC’s investment is more than financial. She sees it as an investment in their future. 

“The programs allow the light to get turned on for these kids,” she said.

The Tiger Woods Learning Center, she believes, instills a sense of value in the kids and poses a real question to them. That question being: We’re going to teach you how to do this, but what are you going to do with it?

Without skipping a beat, the answer comes quick to Lynch. 

“They’re all going to be superstars. They’re going to set the world on fire.” 

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.