West Ashley High teacher wins national honor

Margaret Spigner, a science teacher at West Ashley High School, has been named the Air Force Association 2013 National Teacher of the Year.

Margaret Spigner has been teaching for 31 years, but retirement isn’t on her radar.

She’s still having fun in the classroom, and that means students at West Ashley High School will have another year to learn from a national award-winning teacher.

Spigner has been named the Air Force Association’s 2013 National Teacher of the Year. The award recognizes educators for their accomplishments and achievements in increasing students’ interest in science, technology, math and engineering.

“It’s really exciting and very unexpected,” Spigner said.

The association is a nonprofit military and aerospace education association with more than 230 chapters nationwide. West Ashley High School Principal Mary Runyon nominated Spigner for the Charleston chapter Teacher of the Year award, and Spigner went on to capture the state title.

Runyon said students love Spigner’s classes.

“She has been the one who was involved in project-based learning before we called it that,” she said. “She’s really come through the ranks and risen to tremendous heights.”

The national honor comes with a $3,000 prize, as well as one year of serving on the national association’s Aerospace Education Council. Spigner also will be a special guest at the association’s Delegate Convention in Maryland, where she will speak about her career.

Jerry White, the association’s vice chairman for aerospace education, wrote in a letter to Spigner that the selection committee was impressed with her STEM education leadership, as well as the alliances she had cultivated.

“You are to be commended for the above and beyond commitment you give so unselfishly in order to help prepare the next generation’s national STEM workforce,” he wrote.

Spigner has a master’s degree and is a National Board Certified teacher. She’s won more than $192,000 grants during her career. That money has gone to all kinds of projects, such as an outdoor classroom with a dock to do water samples and cameras to survey the school’s retention ponds.

Spigner said she loves teaching marine science because students have flexibility in what they study. Students can research different projects, and many of those start during the school day and expand to after school and weekends.

The wildcat is the school’s mascot, so her students dubbed themselves the West Ashley Team Environmental Researchers Wildcats — or WATER Wildcats.

They’ve researched pollution and erected signs to discourage dumping into storm drains, and they created a floating wetland. They’ve used small remote operated vehicles to pull plankton nets and check algae.

When students noticed they weren’t catching as many fish in the school’s retention pond, they decided to build and sink an artificial reef to give fish a better habitat, she said. Students then visited hundreds of younger students at nearby schools to explain ground-water runoff and pollution.

“Science is always fun,” she said.

Spigner has sought the support of partners such as the state Department of Natural Resources and Clemson Extension. Those relationships have provided mentors and resources for students.

Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley thanked Spigner for her commitment to excellence.

“She is an example of what will move us closer to our Vision 2016 goals,” she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.