Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching State Finalists
Allysen Lovstuen, math teacher, Decorah High School
Allysen Lovstuen knew she was destined to be a math teacher in the fifth grade.
“I always liked figuring out problems and that’s what I see math is – a problem-solving activity,” she said. “It’s overcoming challenges. I didn’t mind it being hard because I knew the feeling of success would be worth it.”
As a teacher, however, she knows not all students take a liking to math, at least not immediately.
“I think it all goes back to confidence,” she said. “I use frequent formative assessments and check in with each student. It allows me to focus on small groups of students to see where they’re strong, and when they need a bit more of a push – not to give them the answer, but to help them figure out what they need to know.”
Lovstuen eschews methods that put her in front of the classroom lecturing, particularly in lower-level coursework.
“In algebra, where many students are reluctant, part of what we do to help is focus on the structure of the class,” she said. “It’s not a lecture-based course; it’s a lot of group or independent work.”
With frequent interaction, it enables students to arrive at answers themselves, thus bolstering confidence.
“I love letting the students see the power of the math as a tool, and the creativity and beauty of math that most people who never go on into math don't ever see,” she said.
Brian Reece, math teacher, Central Academy, Des Moines
Brian Reece says his love of mathematics bloomed in high school through a teacher.
“He inspired me that math can be really enjoyable,” he said. “Challenging, yes, but challenging can and should be enjoyable.”
He takes that mindset into his classrooms, where he builds upon what he calls a “mathematical community.”
“I try to foster a mathematical community,” he said. “You don’t just sit there and be an individual learner. It’s a process in which you talk to each other about the problems. You sit and talk and work on that together.”
That approach surprises some students initially.
“A lot of times they are used to working individually,” he said. “You have to develop that comfort level and get beyond the ‘You mean I can talk to someone else about math?’”
This collaborative approach not only engages students, but it is something they will take with them throughout their careers.
“In society, they will be asked to work with other people, asked to solve problems in a collaborative environment,” he said. “This will serve them a lifetime.”
At times, he will encounter students who think that math is hard – even before they try it. Some call it math anxiety.
“I see that a lot,” Reece said. “I think the big thing there is trying to give them success; even if the problem isn’t right, the way the students look at the problems can be fascinating and help them go in a different direction. How to arrive at the answer is just as important as arriving at the correct answer. The thought process, the perseverance, those are the skills that you will need no matter what career you decide to do.”
Jeff Marks, math teacher, Roosevelt High School, Des Moines
Jeff Marks took a somewhat circuitous route to becoming a teacher: He first got a degree in engineering. But he had a calling to the classroom.
“I realized I would be able to make a difference as a teacher – teaching something I really like,” Marks said.
It is that enjoyment of math that he wants everyone to share.
“Part of the beauty in math is the struggle, trying to persevere, figuring out how to do it on your own,” he said. “I try to make personal connections with students, encourage collaborative work. I try to establish a sense of community within the classroom where we are all in it together.”
Marks says he didn’t always teach like that.
“Early on in my teaching, I was teaching a lesson on multiplying and dividing fractions,” he said. “I stood up and lectured in front to the classroom and showed them how to do it. No one had questions, so I handed out worksheets and off they went. Then I had an ‘a-ha’ moment – they were merely doing what I did. It was a reflective moment and I thought there had to be more to it.”
He sought out new ways of teaching.
“I realized that maybe the wrong way of teaching is doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “You need to mix up the delivery, mix up how things are conducted in the classroom. It has been a part of my 20-year journey – getting away from lecturing and changing my instruction. I don’t have it perfected – each day is to try something different.”
Shannon McLaughlin, science teacher, Norwalk High School
Shannon McLaughlin developed a love of science from early on, having taken a great interest in the natural world around him. But he also loved the challenge science presented.
“I was attracted to the rigor of the thinking and the demand that science placed on me,” he said.
But beyond his love of science, McLaughlin feels compelled to teach his charges the wonders of science.
“As we become more technologically oriented, science and science-related fields will be an integral part of our society as we continue to make progress,” he said.
Getting students engaged – and keeping them there – comes down to making the information relevant.
“We have to start with something concrete before we get to the abstract,” he said. “We have to provide an experience that students can actually engage with or think about or complete.”
Particularly for beginning science scholars, he likes to explore the concept of energy in his freshman classes.
The bottom line is that when students see relevance, there is less chance of them becoming intimidated about a topic.
“Instead of trying to do a bunch of calculations, we try to get them to recognize how energy is relevant. We try to set them up with a model that enables them to observe any change – whether biological, physical, whatever – and that with change, there is an energy transfer. In the end, they can see it and better understand it.”
Marcia Powell, science teacher, West Delaware High School, Manchester
Marcia Powell was always interested in science, from watching her grandmother in her garden to going to scouts.
“There were wonderful opportunities to learn about science in a real context,” Powell said. “Whether it was learning to work with my dad to take apart a bike, or putting siding on our house, science and applications of science were just all around.”
And it is context, Powell said, that gives meaning to students in her science classes. But context varies from student to student.
“For instance, we could talk about waves,” she said. “A music student is interested about waves differently than a student who is looking to have a career in optometry. There are all sorts of applications that need to be focused upon.”
Our society has some misconceptions about science education, she said.
“Part of the reason that we think that science is not intuitive is because we set up a culture that when you’re studying science, it means you’re smarter than if you’re studying English,” Powell said. “I don’t believe that. If we make something engaging and relevant, then you can keep the students interested.”
Powell said that to effectively teach science, one needs to understand where each student is coming from – and going to.
“My wish for the future education of science teachers is that we bring that relevance and the issue of constructing meaning, which means that kids are not a blank box to be filled, but tapping their knowledge and experience to science,” she said. "Then science becomes real."