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Honoring exemplary math and science teachers

Over 30 years, presidential awards recognize the impact of outstanding teachers

A talented teacher can have an enormous impact on his or her students' educational experience. Accomplished people often credit a teacher for making a whole new understanding open up to them, and with it a path to their future study, career or life's work. The teacher in question is often a mathematics or science teacher.

President Ronald Reagan recognized this in 1983, when Congress created a program to identify exceptional math and science teachers from around the country and honor them at the White House. After 30 years, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) program, administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is still recognizing outstanding teachers.

Since the program's inception, more than 4,200 teachers have been recognized for their contributions in the classroom and to their profession.

Ed Mueller was a middle-school science teacher in in 1983 when he was selected as a PAEMST awardee.

Currently the executive director of the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers, Mueller was in the classroom until 1998.

"I taught hands-on science until the day I retired," said Mueller. He described the "golden years of education" when, starting in the late 1960s, there was an emphasis on teaching science in a hands-on way, and there were quality programs--many of them funded by NSF--to support this approach.

Winning the PAEMST award gave him additional motivation. "It really charges you up to keep going and go out there and do more. I was motivated to go beyond the classroom; that's what I've been doing, teaching teachers."

In 1983, with two others, Mueller started a summer science camp for middle-school students and teachers, which would operate for the next 10 years. During six week-long sessions, teachers had opportunities to go deeply into science topics and engage students in science concepts. On the drive to the camp in north Wisconsin, Mueller would consider activities to bring the science learning home. These included an experiment where pennies of different compositions are used to represent isotopes, to demonstrate that isotopes of an element have different masses.

Hands-on activities are big among teachers nominated for PAEMST awards. Science and math teachers--including computer science teachers--can be nominated for PAEMST by anyone, including colleagues, principals, district officials and students. Teachers can also nominate themselves. Once nominated, they must submit an application that includes not only a resume and a written narrative, but also a videotaped classroom lesson.

The PAEMST program honors primary (K-sixth grade) and secondary (seventh-12th grade) teachers on alternate years. The program is currently calling for nominations for K-6th-grade teachers. The nomination deadline is April 1, 2014, and teachers must submit completed applications by May 1, 2014.

Applications are reviewed at the state and national levels by selection committees of outstanding scientists, mathematicians, education researchers, school and district administrators and educators. Recommendations are sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for final selection.

Awardees receive a certificate signed by the President, a trip for two to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, and a $10,000 award from NSF.

"The Presidential Award has been a phenomenal program," said Denise Griffiths, a math teacher honored in 1983. "It has opened up great opportunities for the recipients. I felt very fortunate to meet the caliber of teachers I was meeting."

After coming to Washington, D.C., to be recognized for her PAEMST award, Griffiths returned home to Delaware and approached her state group about bringing in some of the PAEMST awardees as workshop leaders for teachers' professional development sessions. The program was very successful and is still continuing, currently with a variety of presenters.

Griffiths also was instrumental in forming an alumni group for math teachers who are PAEMST awardees. The Council of Presidential Awardees in Mathematics is one of three PAEMST alumni groups, along with the Society of Elementary Presidential Awardees (SEPA) and the Association of Presidential Awardees in Science Teaching.

Griffiths began teaching in 1967, and is still in the classroom--although she switched to college teaching in the late 1980s, and is now an adjunct instructor at Delaware Technical Community College. She is teaching developmental math, one of the fastest-growing courses on community college campuses.

"This is designed for the adult learner," says Griffiths. "Some of the students are there because they want to be there. Others are there because their companies will be laying them off and have provided tuition assistance for training."

Developing an understanding of mathematics opens up new possibilities for future employment, a motivator for Griffiths continuing to bring her skills to the classroom and for her students to learn.

"These students need to make progress if they want to get a better job," notes Griffiths.

The original class of PAEMST awardees share their passion for teaching with those of the next three decades. Among the PAEMST awardees are career-changers who are bringing their skills back to the classroom.

Judith Martinez, a 2011 awardee, was a chemist who was on a track to become a research scientist when she decided to try classroom teaching. She found that she loved it.

"Maybe I can inspire others in STEM careers to consider teaching," she said in a 2012 interview. "We need to improve science education, in the sense that it has to be more dynamic. We have to integrate other areas, because you have to make it fun and exciting, while at the same time not lowering the bar. Because we have to keep our competitiveness in the world today."

Matthew Owens, a 2011 awardee, started on a path to teaching mathematics when he tutored other students in high school, when he was part of South Carolina's first class of Teaching Fellows. He now teaches pre-calculus and calculus.

"We have two magnet programs at my school, and most of my students are pursuing and researching the math and science topics--from medicine to biochemistry to mathematics, engineering and computer science," he said.

For Owens, the award was, "confirmation of my mathematical practice--what my district has instilled in me professionally and also what the nation has set a standard for in math and science."

With teachers of younger children in grades K-6 being the focus of the next round of PAEMST awards, it's a good moment to remember that these years lay the foundation for mathematics and science learning in high school and beyond. Rosemary Nunnally, a 2006 awardee who teaches science to second-graders in New Hampshire understands that she's modeling a love of science for her students.

"If I'm excited, they're excited," says Nunnally. "My overall favorite is the teaching about dinosaurs and fossils. Last year I was able to go on a dinosaur dig for teachers in South Dakota. To have those opportunities for me just translates into great experience in the classroom."

Nunnally shares with PAEMST awardees of all years, the experience that with the recognition came new opportunities and a renewed sense of mission.

"I really pursued opportunities after winning the presidential award," she added. "I became more aware of national opportunities, national conventions. I think just being that kind of learner myself is what makes me a really good teacher."