A closer look into the work of Mark and Martha

Princeton Public Schools’ elementary science teachers Mark Eastburn and Martha Friend discovered their sparks for science at different times and in different ways. Eastburn’s love for animals, ecology and the great outdoors was cemented when his parents bought him a goldfish and two mice at only 4- or 5-years-old. Friend’s was perhaps rooted in explorations of her backyard stream on Harrison Street or in her father’s Princeton University lab, but did not fully blossom until her college years.

Regardless of their paths to science, Eastburn, who teaches at Riverside Elementary School, and Friend, at Littlebrook Elementary School, have mastered their craft and have proven so by becoming two of five state finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honor in K-12 math and science education awarded by the U.S. government.

Teachers from each of the 50 states are awarded every year for their contribution in the classroom. Presidential Awardees receive a certificate signed by the President of the United States, as well as a trip for two to Washington, D.C., and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. Eastburn and Friend were both state-level finalists, of which there were only five. Two of five went on to receive the top award Sept. 8.

Eastburn, who teaches all grades at Riverside Elementary School, is married with two children, ages 12 and 15. Other immediate family members, most of whom he rescued, include two dogs named Rocky and Frodo, three rabbits named Ziggy, Felipe and Estrella, two tortoises named Leo and Josephine and a small, but internationally famous lizard named Green Fruit Loop.

In addition to teaching, Eastburn loves to read, spend time in nature, explore technology and computer programming, write and practice photography – his photos can be seen on his Instagram @markeastburn and @markeastburn.pps. He recently published a children’s book called “Earning My Spots,” which is a tale of adventure with an “environmental twist” about a boy who can shapeshift into a hyena.

“What most people would consider work are activities that I would do anyway, and I really enjoy just about everything that I do,” Eastburn said.

Friend has three children, 15, 13 and 11, and a husband whose contagious energy, she says, “oozes” joy from their home. When she is not educating little ones at Littlebrook or spending time with her family and squirrel-chasing rescue dog, Ripley, Friend is carving a path to remedy social issues.

“I’m passionate about racial justice and affordable housing for all,” Friend said. “I believe that if you don’t work to make the world a better place, then move over to allow others the space to do it. Simple gestures matter, and life is finite, so there is not time to waste.”

To read more about what drives these two Princeton Public Schools educators, check out the Q&As below.


The Sun: What was it like growing up surrounded by the academic grandeur of Princeton University? Do you think the elite elements of the university made an impact on your hunger for education, or was it the gritty, rawer scope into science and labs that influenced you?

Friend: I’m not sure if it was the academic environment – having postdoctoral students over for holiday meals, spending so much time in my dad’s lab and around his research, having so many friends whose parents were also academics – or simply because of the value that “wonder” had in my household.  Dinner conversations inevitably went to a discussion of parasites or something else equally inappropriate in other homes. It was a test for any potential suitor for one of the siblings (I have four) – could they handle sitting through our dinner discussions?

The Sun: What is something that has defined you and perhaps the way you teach?

Friend: My life changed when I was 9 years old as my mom died suddenly while riding her bike home from Riverside School. I’m not sure I truly understood the definition of community before she died, but our family of five was surrounded and cared for throughout that tragedy.

Losing my mom defined me for a very long time.

She was an amazing human being and beloved in this community. I continually strive to live up to her standards of humanity. I think teaching science lab at Littlebrook allows me to walk in her shoes each day as she loved the wonder of an autumn leaf or new spider web. She found wonder if everything – even a pregnant tick, yes, tick, which she kept in a container so we might amaze at the birth of the many many baby ticks. She simply loved life.

The Sun: How do you feel education is evolving, either personally for you as a teacher or in general?

Friend: No longer is it teaching content to students. The Next Generation Science Standards that will be implemented K-12 over the next two years are about supporting students as they create their own meaning about the world around them. It’s about celebrating their sense of wonder and providing tools for them to make their own understanding. It’s about applying their new understanding of the world to the next idea and building on their questions.

My work is about acknowledging the wealth of experience and understanding students bring to the classroom and supporting their efforts to understand the world around them.  Memorizing facts for the sake of simply knowing them is no longer enough. What can you do with those facts? What problems can we solve with them?

The Sun: Which aspect of science affects you most powerfully?

Friend: I simply love learning and figuring things out and being perpetually astonished.  Teaching science, especially in an elementary science lab, is about being in a constant state of wonder and reinforcing its importance to my students.

I am passionate about teaching and just as passionate about making life-long connections with my students and their families. Teaching is personal, if it isn’t, then you aren’t doing it right. I have relationships with students, and their families that I taught 20 years ago and expect the same with my new families this year.

The Sun: Who is your favorite leader, scientist or teacher and why?

Friend: I was so very lucky to student teach at Littlebrook School and then be hired to teach fifth grade with the amazing Adrienne Cohen and my sister, Sarah Schwimmer. The teachers in this school, over the past 23 years, have been my guides through life, my mentors in teaching and my dear friends. I raised my children here at Littlebrook and couldn’t be more grateful.



The Sun: From age 22 to 25, you served in the Peace Corps in Panama. How did that shape you as a young man, and in what ways did it inspire you to devote your life to teaching?

Eastburn: My assignment was an agroforestry volunteer in a mountain village in central Panama called Las Huacas de Quije, which did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. My assignment was to teach soil conservation, vegetable gardening and other agricultural practices, but while there, I realized that I had the easiest time working with children, since many of the adults were already set in their ways and reluctant to change. Children, however, were always eager to learn new things (even iguana ranching), which encouraged me to pursue a career in teaching. Even today, I often find that my students are much more than willing to hold a tarantula or attempt to write computer code than most grownups, which fuels my continued inspiration as a teacher.

The Sun: What drew you to the area of science? Have there been other areas of study that were alluring to you?

Eastburn: I think that children generally have a strong interest in science, but some never outgrow it, or at least have enough experiences during their childhood to continue that interest. As the world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle has said, “I’m asked sometimes, ‘How did you get to be a biologist?’ And I say, ‘It’s really easy. You start as a little kid and then you never grow up.” I think that this must be why I particularly enjoy teaching at the elementary level. I am also interested in history and world cultures, about the movement of people around the globe – especially the histories of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Sun: What is something you value most as a teacher?

Eastburn: Above all else, I feel that it is my duty to encourage children to explore the unknown and take risks, using the tools of science, so that their generation might walk on Mars, build robots to mine asteroids, cure diseases, feed a growing population, live more sustainably, restore ailing ecosystems and inspire future generations to reach even more ambitious goals.

The Sun: Which aspect of science affects you most powerfully?

Eastburn: It’s that process of continually asking questions, seeking evidence to support, or disprove, hypotheses and using logic to determine what’s really happening “behind the scenes.” I also love the open mindedness required for science to be successful, since one must always be willing to accept new evidence and ideas. In its purest form, science is impartial, free from national and cultural boundaries and has given us tremendous power to understand our universe in a relatively short period of time.

The Sun: Who is your favorite leader, scientist or teacher and why?

Eastburn: Carl Sagan has undoubtedly been a great influence on me, since I watched his “Cosmos” series when I was younger and still get goosebumps everytime I hear him narrate from “Pale Blue Dot.” Robert Bakker, a paleontologist from Bergen County and author of many books, also encouraged my love for science through his work. I’ve also gained great inspiration from Stephen Jay Gould and Freeman Dyson, one of whom I’ve had the honor to meet in person (Dyson) and the other (Gould) I dared to call at his Harvard office when I was in college.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida