Walk into Pam Sherfey's fourth-grade science class at Linton Springs Elementary in Sykesville and close your eyes.
With the sounds of chirping crickets and a bubbling pond filling the background, for just a moment you begin to imagine yourself on a nature trail.
Opening your eyes reveals a classroom filled with nuggets from nature.
From the posters of silkworm moths, ants and beetles plastered across the walls to aquariums housing environmental habitats to the bucket brimming with tadpoles sitting just inside the entrance, Sherfey's pupils have a world of science at their fingertips.
"We're getting them hooked on science at an age when they want to investigate," said Sherfey, who has taught science for 19 years in Carroll County and Baltimore County schools. A graduate of what is now Towson University, she has been at Linton Springs for the past seven years.
"The point to science is to let the children know things are out there," she said. "To open your eyes and open your ears, and observe and wonder."
Her engaging teaching methods have not gone unnoticed.
Among other accolades, the National Science Foundation recently named her a finalist - along with four other Maryland science and math teachers - for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation's highest honor for teaching in those fields. She was among 95 elementary teachers nationally who were selected.
She and the other Maryland nominees were honored last week by state education officials at the Maryland Science Center.
In addition, she was one of two educators named Teacher of the Year recently by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which recognizes innovative environmental education.
She prods her students to come up with "wonder questions" and then explore. She believes that answering these questions is where learning unfolds.
"The content is important, but the process is the outstanding part," she said. "We're teaching them how to think, how to research, how to face a problem and work logically through it to come to solutions. And then how to come to the best solution."
During the past few years, her pupils have engaged in several projects to improve their school's environmental quality.
They have surveyed the school property to determine its environmental needs. They have researched solutions, written grant applications and ordered plants for the school's gardens.
They have restored a wetlands area on the school's property. They have created a winter garden to support animal life around the campus. They have made a rain garden to help slow runoff, thereby improving a soil-erosion problem.
A current project, "Bay Windows," has pupils researching types of gardens and their benefits. The gardens will be at stations in the school. Pupils will determine which plants to put in each garden, order all of the plants, then organize a schoolwide planting effort.
A key element of Sherfey's teaching style is to allow her pupils to explore the material for themselves.
"She kind of lets us teach her, too," said Olivia Wisner, 10, of Eldersburg. "She gives us articles from environmental magazines and lets us explain to her what we've learned."
Classmate Kristin Cady, 10, of Woodbine could barely contain her energy as she described her favorite project - when the students created inventions during a unit on electricity - and how much she enjoys Sherfey's class.
"I love science because we get to use all these really great tools," she said. "When she is doing a project, she lets us practically take over. ... I think she's probably the best teacher I've ever had."
Sherfey's lessons appear to be making a difference in the ways her pupils see the world around them.
On a recent day, while the class was identifying the parts of a microscope, a pupil raised his hand and appeared to have the answer to a question. Instead, he alerted Sherfey to a dripping water faucet.
The teacher quickly turned off the faucet. Turning to thank him, she said, "We don't want to waste water, do we?"
Sherfey said her goal is to make lifelong learners out of her pupils, all of whom she calls scientists.
"It's not just about me telling them what they need to know," she said. "It's about them discovering."