Across the country, high school psychology students are engaging with animals, competing in psychology bowls and participating in other activities that are a far cry from the old textbook-and-lecture routine.

Each year, APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) committee recognizes the high school teachers at the front of such exciting classrooms with its Excellence in Teaching Award. TOPSS honors the awardees with a certificate, an engraved silver cup, $500, a DVD video toolkit donated by Worth Publishers and a yearlong TOPSS membership or renewal.

"We hope [the award] will inspire them to keep learning and trying to improve teaching," says TOPSS Chair Jann Longman, a high school psychology teacher in Washington state.

Laura Brandt, Grayslake Central High School, Grayslake, Ill.

Understanding psychology can make you a more empathetic friend, a sharper student and a stronger leader, believes Laura Brandt, who's been teaching the subject in northern Illinois for 19 years. That's why her goal is to impart psychological principles to all students, whether or not they want to study psychology in college or become psychologists.

"If they can understand how this affects their lives, behavior and the people around them, I'm happy," she says.

Brandt has organized a psychology quiz bowl and hosted regional conferences with her colleagues in the area. Although she's recognized as an "all-around school leader," according to Longman, Brandt's not interested in a position in administration. "I can't imagine coming to school every day and not spending the majority of my time with the kids," she says. "It never gets stale."

Kimberly Patterson, Cypress Bay High School, Weston, Fla.

Whether her students are splitting into competing teams to learn about social psychology or asked to dance like neurons to better understand neuroscience, every activity in Kimberly Patterson's AP psychology class has a purpose—even though it may at first seem like it's just for fun.

Patterson, who is trained to teach medical skills to students in the health professions, was switched to psychology because she didn't have a nursing degree. "It was meant to be," she says. She's launched a county-wide psychology bowl—expected to include up to eight schools next year—and instituted her school's psychology honor society, a national pilot that involves community service, guest lectures and field trips to mental hospitals and sleep clinics. "I love everything I do," she says.

Maria Vita, Penn Manor High School, Millersville, Pa.

As a native of New York City, Maria Vita might have felt out of place in Millersville, Pa., a small farming community with a large Amish population. But Vita, who's taught psychology there for nine years, isn't predictable—and neither are her classes. She is U.S. history buff who has taught on a Native American reservation in New Mexico and never thought she'd teach psychology, but now says the subject exemplifies why she went into teaching in the first place. "I like when students are able to think critically and demonstrate their learning in a creative way," like when their work in her rat lab makes classical and operant conditioning come to life, she says.

In the lab, students use principles like the cognitive map, positive punishment and generalization to train rats to respond to clickers, push marbles, navigate mazes and even play the piano. "The rats aren't the only ones learning," Vita says.

—Anna Miller