Nation's best mathematics and science teachers visit Washington to receive presidential award

03/17/04

Arlington, Va.--Pickles, Oreos, cell phone billing plans and Barbie dolls have everything to do with raising achievement in secondary mathematics and science, according to some of the nation's top teachers in these subjects.

Innovation, humor, expert knowledge of their subject and an ability to inspire student creativity are among the qualities common to the 95 mathematics and science teachers honored this week with the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation's highest commendation for work in the classroom.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) administers the awards program for the White House. NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions.

The teachers are visiting Washington, D.C. this week for an awards ceremony, congressional meetings, conversations with education leaders and a series of professional development activities. They have the rare chance in a teacher's life to exchange ideas and experiences with colleagues to enrich teaching in their own classrooms.

"These outstanding teachers show us what excellent teaching looks like," says Mark Saul, NSF's PAEMST project director. "They have a passion for their subject and a dedication to their students. They know how to bring out the best in every student, in every kind of school. We hope their example will stimulate the creativity of other teachers and help to attract new recruits to the mathematics and science teaching profession."

Among the activities award-winning teachers use to spark the learning process:

  • Illuminating a pickle to illustrate electrochemical principles
  • Computing the volume of stuffing in Oreo Double Stuff cookies. Is it really double?
  • Analyzing the DNA from a mock classroom crime scene
  • Videotaping basketball free throws to study projectile motion
  • Using a Barbie doll in a bungee-jump to test laws of motion

The award-winning teachers overwhelmingly agree that students frequently respond best to lessons that relate to recognizable phenomena from their own lives or that allow for hands-on learning. They have observed that an engaging teaching style prompts students to pose their own questions, test their own theories, and arrive at their own solutions, with the teacher as a facilitator and guide.

"Today's workers need to know how to make quick decisions, adapt to ever-changing demands and solve problems independently or in teams. Such skills are likely to come from the kind of teaching these award winners practice," said Saul.

Since 1983, the White House and NSF have sought nominations of exemplary math and science teachers from every state and four U.S. jurisdictions. In addition to honoring their achievement, the goal of the awards is to expand and exemplify the definition of excellent science and mathematics teaching.

"Research indicates that nothing is so important in raising student achievement as a good teacher--not class size, not Internet access, not students' income level or ethnicity," said Saul. "Ensuring an adequate supply of eager, skilled teachers depends as much upon rewarding and retaining the best of them as it does upon improving the average teacher's abilities."

U.S. student performance in mathematics and science has been lagging, and many schools are experiencing shortages of math and science teachers. "The teachers who can turn this around are constantly searching for meaningful ways to spark the learning process," said Saul. "If you're lucky, you'll have a chance to experience at least one such teacher in your lifetime."

"Our hope is that these great teachers will return to their communities feeling intellectually invigorated, professionally connected and publicly appreciated," said Saul. "We are confident they will go on to ignite sparks in others just as they have inspired and affected their students."

The 2004 nominations are currently open for mathematics and science teachers in grades K-6 [www.paemst.org]. Candidates can be nominated by anyone who knows an excellent teacher: school principals, other teachers, students, parents and members of the general public.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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