When people think of Grammy nominees, names like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna likely come to mind. This year, a member of the Case Western Reserve University community also join the ranks: Elizabeth Hankins, a PhD candidate in her seventh year in the Department of Music, who was a finalist for the 2017 Music Educator of the Year Award.

Hankins, who also is director of the Lakewood High School orchestra, ultimately wasn’t chosen as the winner, which was announced Wednesday. But she still considers it an honor to have been named one of 10 finalists—selected from a pool of more than 3,300 nominations—in recognition of the work she’s done with the Lakewood Project, which is considered the nation’s first high school rock orchestra.

“It’s completely mind-blowing. It was an honor to be nominated, and when I made it to the quarterfinals, I knew that was huge,” she said “There are so many fantastic educators out there in every topic, especially in music.”

Hankins started the Lakewood Project in 2002 after she taking her students to a clinic at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The clinic was with a musical group with which she was unfamiliar: the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

When she saw the electric guitar, electric bass and drum set on stage, she thought she had arrived in the wrong place. As soon as the orchestra began a flawless rendition of the complicated piece “Flight of the Bumblebee,” though, all of her preconceived notions about what makes an “orchestra” fell away.

But it was the excitement she saw in her students that really struck a chord.

“They enjoyed my class, but their eyes never sparkled like they did sitting there watching that,” Hankins said. “To me, as an educator, it’s my responsibility to get people excited about topics and passionate about what they’re doing.”

She wanted to capture that feeling and bring it to her classroom, so she set out to give students the chance to play “their music” by performing rock and classical music with a twist.

Armed with advice from others, including Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill, she formed the 40-piece alternative ensemble.

Though she was met with resistance along the way and admits that she had no idea what she was doing, Hankins said she “blindly kept putting one foot in front of the other.”

When the orchestra played all together for the first time, Hankins said it “was a different sound, but an exciting one.”

Just months later, the group played six songs for 2,000 music educators at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some of those educators walked out, while Hankins said others were “flabbergasted” by the performance of such non-traditional orchestral music.

Not long before, Hankins held these educators’ same notions about rock music. Now, 15 years later, she’s seen the payoff of allowing students to play music that interests them: Seventy-one percent of Lakewood Project alumni go on to pursue music in some form after high school.

In fact, Hankins is researching the program’s impact on her students for her PhD dissertation.

“Music is music. There is no hierarchy. One of the goals of music education is to create lifelong learning in music, to create lifelong musicians—not just an appreciation. We know the benefits of participation in music, especially to health and [cognition],” she said. “So if we offer music programs in school because we think it’s important, why aren’t we trying to enable our students to continue?”

And though she said she stumbled upon that success through the Lakewood Project, she hopes that, through her dissertation, she will be able to home in on just what it is about the project that inspires students to continue in music. From there, she’ll be able to share that information with other teachers to help them find success.

Check out Hankins’ answers to this week’s five questions, and then head over to lakewoodproject.com to discover the Lakewood Project.

1. What do you like most about Cleveland?

I love the diversity and the easy access to so many world-class things—food, art and music.

2. What’s your favorite social media platform?

The only one I use is Twitter.

3. What was the most influential class you’ve ever taken?

The social justice class I took with Dr. [Regina] Nixon at CWRU [as part of her PhD program].

4. If you could meet any historical figure, who would you pick, and why?

[Johann Sebastian] Bach. The reason I’d like to meet or watch him work is because of his fearless desire to explore. He just wrote such amazing music.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

It’s the community, the collaboration. The professors and the students—everybody works together and it’s just so supportive.