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Teacher makes science interesting for students

SUWANEE - Mai Yin Tsoi is one chemistry teacher who can keep her students alert even when they are learning about ionic and covalent bonds. "Bouncing off walls" may be an atypical way of describing a teacher, but Collins Hill High School students can sense her boundless energy and enthusiasm in the classroom.

One of six finalists for the Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year award, Tsoi has a unique style when it comes to teaching, one that keeps her students excited - and awake.

Tsoi isn't afraid to take risks. Sometimes she comes to class dressed as Urkilala, an alien that threatens to eat all the paper in the classroom. Prancing about in a huge, furry lion face, a huge baton and a long, black alien coat, she jokingly "terrorizes" the students.

"It's never the same," sophomore Kelly Harrington said. "She always does something exciting. There's never a dull moment unless we're taking a test."

But her class isn't all just for fun. Tsoi only accepts the best from her students, raising the bar for them. Her students said she goes out of her way to explain concepts to students in a way they can understand.

"A lot of teachers are strict, and they want to get through the facts before answering any questions. She is always willing to answer your questions," junior Max Vaillancourt said.

Tsoi is one of six finalists for the school system's annual Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced at a banquet Nov. 3 at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth. She was selected from a pool of 105 teachers nominated by their schools. The winner will receive a $1,000 bonus every year he or she is employed by the district, among other prizes. They also will represent Gwinnett County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition.

Tsoi's resilience is as commendable as her teaching style. Growing up in southern California, a child of Chinese immigrants, Tsoi was surrounded by privileged children while she herself was disadvantaged. Tsoi also went into the sciences as an exception - a minority and a woman.

Through merit scholarships, Tsoi was able to finance her education and earn degrees from several prestigious institutions, including Vassar College and the Georgia Institute of Technology. With her education and experience, Tsoi would have been successful in whichever area she chose. She decided on teaching not only because she was good at it, but as a way of giving back. Tsoi said many people helped her along the way to get to where she is now.

"It's my way of giving back to all the thousands of nameless, faceless people who gave me a chance along the way," she said.

Her fascination with computers and learning prompted Tsoi to start developing an online preparatory chemistry class for the district. She is also teaching her students to simplify their lives using computer programs and observing how they interact with computers.

"I want technology to be their tool to reach the future," Tsoi said. "I need to enable them because this is the information age."

Tsoi has also become active at the school outside of the classroom. She helped start a chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving at Collins Hill. She wants to ensure she gives students a forum to discuss alcohol and other issues they face about which they may not feel comfortable discussing at home.

Whichever way she can, Tsoi goes out of her way to make sure her students enjoy science and learn a lot in the process.