‘Organized Chaos:’ Celebrating Corky’s spark and passion in Pender


Much like the observable universe, CoraLynn “Corky” Malmberg’s love for Pender continues to expand. But where astronomers measure cosmic expansion by studying the ever-increasing distance between galaxies, Pender residents measure Corky’s impact by investigating the ways it brings the community closer together.

The raucous cheers of 450 K-12 students indicated the community was closer than ever during the inaugural Corky Malmberg Annual Science Day, held March 31 in Pender. Each student wore a T-shirt bearing an outline of Corky’s smiling face, a common sight during her 34 years of teaching science at Pender Public Schools. Organizers conceived the event as a celebration and continuation of her passion for teaching and learning, emphasizing activities for students of all ages and culminating with a paper rocket building and launching competition that found high schoolers cooperating with elementary students.

“Today is all about celebrating the spark Corky wanted to bring to science education,” said Jennifer Davis, a science teacher at Pender Public Schools. “It’s about trying to help the kids see how incredible our world is.”

The day brought an armadillo, a planetarium, volcanos, (toy) dinosaurs, a young kangaroo and more to Pender. When Adam Davis, a professor of physics at Wayne State University, asked the 450 students if they wanted to do a couple explosions, he was met with thundering affirmation. Many students said his demonstration was their favorite part of the day—even if they were initially startled by the booming ball of fire.

It was “organized chaos,” said Pender Public Schools Principal Kelly Ballinger. Corky would not have had it any other way. Corky went above and beyond in her efforts to make science come to life for her students. She loved messy experiments, and her ability to turn her entire classroom into a papier-mâché rainforest was a particularly potent memory for past students.

“If she could see today, she would know that her life was well lived,” said Corky’s daughter, Julie Grawe.

Julie and her brother, Sam Malmberg, traveled from Fort Collins, Colorado to witness the day, made possible through the collaborative work of the school, volunteers, and Pender-Thurston Education and Community Foundation Fund (PTECFF), an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF). When Sam and Julie created the Corky Malmberg Science Education Endowment, an account through PTECFF, they aimed to create learning opportunities which cultivate a love of science in students. By all measures, the Corky Malmberg Annual Science Day was a sterling example of mission fulfillment.

Corky’s children choosing the Pender-Thurston Education and Community Foundation Fund as a place to house the endowment made sense, said Katie Gutzmann, a member of the fund advisory committee (FAC). Corky was a longtime member of the FAC, and her commitment to making her community a better place to live matched her fervor for education. The endowment in her name is organized around flexibility, enabling volunteers to use funding for events, equipment, travel opportunities and much more.

“Toward the end of her life, Corky wanted to figure out a way to carry on her love for science,” Gutzmann said. “I really love how Sam and Julie didn’t just want to do a traditional scholarship. It was really meaningful for them to think about how they could make it a little more fluid, have a little more options so it wasn’t so restricted.”

The day’s impact was apparent on students’ faces and their enthusiasm to be part of a vibrant learning experience. With every new opportunity to volunteer – whether to hold a boa constrictor or to help ignite a hydrogen-filled balloon – hands shot up with increasing vigor from the stands. Students jumped out of their seats for a chance to participate in the controlled scientific pandemonium.

When not gathered in the event center, the students rotated through stations located throughout the school and down the street at the Pender Community Center. They learned about dinosaurs, crawled into an inflatable planetarium, learned their blood type and mashed together homemade slime, the blue or green dye staining their palms and, on more than one occasion, their faces. One student said she had never been more excited about science.

That’s what Corky cherished most about teaching – students finding their own spark, their own personal big bang introduction to the wonders of the universe. Through Corky’s enthusiastic, ever-expanding tending, those sparks ignite lifelong passions for learning.

“All humans want to keep learning, it’s just life gets in the way of that, and we forget,” Sam said. “My mom never forgot about that. Kids remember that.”

Today is all about celebrating the spark Corky wanted to bring to science education. It’s about trying to help the kids see how incredible our world is.

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