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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Teacher gets honorary doctorate for bringing research to classroom

Alex Kulpinski
Margaret Wilch interacts with her student. Lydia Stern/Daily Wildcat

Margaret Wilch is no ordinary high school teacher.

Twenty years ago, she decided to forego a typical lesson plan with her students at Tucson High Magnet School. Instead, she made them into researchers.

Since then, her students have worked hand-in-hand with UA scientists and conducted research projects they created themselves. Her efforts paid off, as Wilch will receive an honorary doctorate from the UA’s College of Science this May. She cannot think of a higher honor for her work, she said.

Wilch attended Cornell College in Iowa, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biology. During her studies, she visited Arizona for a project and “fell in love” with the state. She permanently moved to Arizona upon graduating.

In Arizona, Wilch worked in early child care to be closer to her daughter, but never dreamed of becoming a teacher. The thought of teaching high school students, she said, initially intimidated her. She now teaches three courses at Tucson High: honors biology, biotechnology and an honors research methods class.

“I think high school is basically reading books and just learning about facts and the answer, but in the research methods class, you really get the opportunity to do research and pose your own question,” said Ochana Otto, a senior in her class. “She has played a tremendous role in helping her students here at Tucson High actually like science. She deserves recognition for that.”

Otto took first place in the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair and is one of 16 students in Wilch’s research methods class. Upon graduation, he said he plans on attending the UA, where he has formed connections through Wilch’s class. The class, which is student-directed, returned from the regional science fair last week and five students qualified for the state’s science fair.

In addition to teaching, Wilch oversees two student clubs, tutors and runs an annual summer program. She said although teaching can be overwhelming, the rewards are countless.

“I love seeing the growth in students and certainly, getting to know students and how they think. I think I have learned far more from them than they have from me,” Wilch said. “I’ve learned about science, and also just about life. It’s been really wonderful meeting so many different people from different walks of life, all in the realm of science.”

Wilch has received awards like Science Teacher of the Year, Arizona Bioscience Educator of the Year and top teacher at the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair. Despite her accomplishments, Wilch said she never expected a call in which the person on the other line would tell her that she had received an honorary doctorate.

“When I sat and thought about it … this honorary doctorate is certainly the most meaningful award I think I’ll ever get,” Wilch said. “It came from the College of Science and I was supported by people who knew me and knew the work I did. I feel like it’s a huge honor and affirmation of the years that I’ve worked.”

Although Wilch was surprised that she received the honorary doctorate, some of the people who have worked closely with her over the years are not.

“She is absolutely a gem. She’s the kind of teacher everyone wishes for, for themselves, and, if you are a parent, for your child,” said Leslie Tolbert, senior vice president for research at the UA, who has worked with Wilch and her students. “She pulls the best out of students, she pushes them hard and helps them to see that science is everywhere around them. I think she really deserves this recognition.”

Wilch, however, credits her students for helping her come this far.

“I totally owe this to my students,” she said. “The program would not have run, there wouldn’t have been a collaboration with the U of A, none of it would have happened if there weren’t students who wanted to do it and were brave enough to do it.”

Although Wilch has lost touch with some of her former students, she knows a lot of them have gone on to get doctorates or attend medical school. A lot of them have continued in undergraduate and into graduate school in the same fields they started out in high school, Wilch said.

“I really appreciate what a broad perspective I’ve gotten on how the world works from teaching, it’s really been rich,” Wilch said. “There are a lot of wonderful opportunities for teachers to do research and participate in different learning experiences to gain a better understanding of things, especially in the sciences.”

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