Westerville North High School teacher Jeffrey Bracken said he feels like he has won the lottery after being selected as the winner of the 2019 Jennings Arthur S. Holden Teacher Award for Excellence in Science Education.
The award comes with a $7,500 prize that will be used to expand the school's Chem Gems soap project.
"You fill out an application, and it's kind of like playing the lottery," Bracken said. "As luck would have it, I feel like I won the Powerball lottery. It's amazing. The organization has been very supportive over the years with a number of different grants I've received from them."
He said public school superintendents from all over Ohio can nominate one teacher for each of the four awards given by the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation.
"It's noteworthy because of that," Bracken said.
In addition to his award, the others are the George B. Chapman Jr. Teacher Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education; Master Teacher Award; and Team Teaching Award.
Westerville Superintendent John Kellogg wrote in his nomination for Bracken, "His innovative teaching strategies involving real-world projects like hydroponics, raised bed gardening, and composting have sparked interest in the students at Westerville North High School.
"Mr. Bracken and his students have made a positive impact on our community through his collaboration with the Westerville Area Resource Ministry, which is a local agency that provides food to members of our community."
He said Bracken and his students have donated more than 600 pounds of fresh produce from the 75 raised-bed gardens at the school.
Kellogg said Bracken also created the interdisciplinary Chem Gems program that produces soap, bath bombs and lip balm.
While his chemistry students produce the cosmetics, the business students sell the products to both local and online consumers.
Bracken expanded the program to include special-education students who assist in the labeling and shrink-wrap packaging of the products.
Bracken said the impetus for Chem Gems started in 2014 when he attended a chemistry teacher conference.
"I took a three-hour workshop on the science of soap- making," he said. "I never thought of a bar of soap and how chemistry can be used to make that."
He returned from the workshop and talked to Natalie Schaublin, then a North business teacher.
"When I learned about the soap-making, she was instrumental in taking it to another level," he said. "I thought she would be willing to work with us, and it was an idea she would be excited about. She was wonderful to work with."
He said that launched the initial success, getting Chem Gems off and running.
"Sadly, Natalie retired two years ago and passed away in April," Bracken said.
Amanda Mosely, a business teacher at North, has helped elevate the program, he said.
Bracken said the Westerville Sunrise Rotary Club provided a grant in 2015 to buy the first bath-bomb press.
"We could pump out hundreds per hour," he said. "With that success, we needed another bath-bomb press."
Bracken said more grants followed and plans for the latest award include buying two more bath-bomb presses, taking the number to six presses, and diversifying the product line.
"The dream is to open up an Amazon storefront," he said. "Amazon orders would be taken over the weekend. Mrs. Mosely would tell us how many orders received, and the special-ed students help package. They help with packaging and labeling."
Bracken said many of the ideas of what to make next come from the students.
"It's exciting and fun," he said, "and it tells me not to relax and just make soaps and bath balm. Some (customers) said they are a shower person, so we developed shower bombs."
He said lines of liquid soaps and sugar scrubs are on the horizon.
"In January, we started working on a toilet bomb," Bracken said. "It's all about the fragrance. Our toilet bombs have the active ingredient in OxiClean. It will help clean the toilet."
He has kept his first bar of odorless and colorless soap to remind him how far the project has come.
"At the time, I didn't know," he said. "It always reminds me where I started. Now the kids pick colors and fragrances to make soap. It's amazing to me."
During the last fall semester, Bracken's students produced more than 100 bars of soap, 1,800 bath bombs and 700 tubes of lip balm that were sold at three local craft shows and on the Chem Gems student-designed website, wnchemgems.com.
Bracken will be recognized at the annual Jennings Educators Retreat dinner July 25 at the Marriott Cleveland East in Warrensville Heights. He has been teaching science for 25 years, 23 of them at Westerville North.