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Iowa educators named state finalists for nation's highest honor in math, science teaching

Date: 
Thursday, September 15, 2016

Four Iowa educators have been named state finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The two math finalists are:

  • Zac Christensen, a second-grade teacher at Perkins Elementary School, Des Moines Public Schools
  • Natalie Franke, a second-grade teacher at Brookview Elementary School, Waukee Community School District

The two science finalists are:

  • Lisa Chizek, a fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher at North Tama Elementary, North Tama County Community School District
  • Ashley Flatebo, an instructional coach at Jefferson Elementary, Mason City Community School District

“These Iowa educators are role models to their students and colleagues and an inspiration to their communities,” Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise said. “Their leadership is especially important as Iowa grows its commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.”

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are the nation’s highest honors for kindergarten through 12th grade educators of math and science.

More than 4,400 teachers from each of the 50 states and four U.S. jurisdictions have been recognized since Congress created the program in 1983. The awards are administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Recognized for their contributions in the classroom and their profession, awardees are leaders in the improvement of math and science education, role models for their colleagues and inspiration to their communities.

Award recipients receive a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., to attend recognition events and pursue professional development opportunities, a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation and a certificate signed by the president of the United States.

Here, the finalists give their thoughts on bringing a quality education into the classroom:

Math

Zac Christensen

  • Second-grade teacher, 16-year teaching veteran
  • Perkins Elementary School, Des Moines Public Schools

How can we get more students interested in math at a time when Iowa is working to grow its commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education?
I think these seeds are planted in the elementary school. Students are not interested in learning and practicing procedures. But too many elementary math classes are still procedure-based. We must work to make solving rich problems the focus of elementary math classes. Students bring with them an inherent ability to solve problems and an inquisitive nature. We both honor and develop these characteristics by structuring our classes around solving real and challenging tasks.

As students view math class as a place whose focus is on solving problems, the effect, hopefully, will be an increase in students committed to the STEM fields, as the students continue to engage in the business of solving problems. It should be our hope that the work performed in those careers would closely match the math classes they have been taking since elementary school, in that they are presented a task, and must come up with a creative and effective solution — one that does not always present itself right away.

Why is math so important in our education system?
The challenges facing our nation and world, including those in technology security, climate, infrastructure, and energy will ultimately be solved by people with strong mathematical backgrounds. Knowing this, mathematics and the entire STEM concentration must continue to be a focus of our K-12 schools and must get even more attention, funding, and opportunities for professional development.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math courses?
I think the misperception that we must battle is that students are or aren’t born with an aptitude for math. This starts at home. People who were unsuccessful at math too often pass on a mindset to their children that they will not be good at math either.

In some ways, our first job as teachers is to change the mindset of our students. Our first job is to get them to believe that, “Yes! I can be a successful math student!” Once students believe in their own potential, they begin to see the fruits of their labor. They are not derailed by mistakes, and hopefully begin to view mistakes in a positive manner — that a mistake is nothing more than an opportunity to learn. To paraphrase a quote from the movie A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.”

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
There is no one answer as to what makes dynamic and effective teacher. I think there are consistent qualities among effective teachers and probably the most important quality is being self-aware. Good teachers know about their strengths and weaknesses, and teach in a way that highlights their strengths. Additionally, they put in effort to improve the areas that are not as strong.

The other consistent thing that I notice among effective teachers is that they are authentic. They are not pretending to be someone else. They are not afraid to display their own personality, which helps foster relationships with their students.


Natalie Franke

  • Second-grade teacher, 20-year teaching veteran
  • Brookview Elementary School, Waukee Community School District

How can we get more students interested in math at a time when Iowa is working to grow its commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education?
As educators, it is our job to teach mathematics for understanding. When students have a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and relationships, they become more confident in their abilities as mathematicians. At a young age, we have opportunities to teach students problem-solving skills and that there is more than one way to solve a problem. Young children have a lot of intuitive knowledge about mathematics, which in turn we need to continue to grow and foster as they get older.

Why is math so important in our education system?
Math is everywhere in the real world. We need to give students opportunities to see how math is connected and interwoven into so many other areas like the environment, technology, architecture, art, engineering and science.

We want to send our students out into the world with strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We want them to think creatively about math and have opportunities to collaborate with one another to find and design solutions to problems. These are skills that students need once they graduate from high school. It is important that we provide learning opportunities which embed these skills, and then will help children build a strong foundation for the future.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math courses?
As we change peoples’ mindsets about math, I believe this misperception will change. Hopefully as educators we can help change the perception about math at a young age. We need to be mindful about the messages we give students about math. Our beliefs and the messages we send to our students and children can have a direct correlation to student learning and ability.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
I believe a dynamic and effective teacher values relationships with students. It is important to find out what students’ interests, passions, and learning styles are. Letting students know you believe in them and their abilities will help them become confident learners.

A dynamic and effective teacher has a deep understanding of the content he or she is teaching and then becomes a facilitator of student learning. Knowing each student as a learner and having deep content knowledge drives teacher moves, whether it’s questioning, providing feedback, and/or encouragement. Incorporating all of this helps students make gains in their learning and also guides teacher instruction.

Science

Lisa Chizek

  • Fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher, 11-year teaching veteran
  • North Tama Elementary, North Tama County Community School District

How can we get more students interested in science at a time when Iowa is working to grow its commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education?
I believe we can get more students interested in science by engaging in them in science rather than having them only read or be lectured to about science. Learning about the world and how it works is fascinating in so many different ways. If students have the opportunities to wonder, explore, and actually get their hands on investigating science, then I believe they will be hooked. Nurturing instead of stifling their curiosity about their world will draw more students’ interest in science.

Why is science so important in our education system?
Science is very important to include in our elementary education system because people need to understand science in order to make informed decisions throughout their lives. Children come to school with a natural curiosity and a drive to learn more about their world. They have so many questions they want to explore and answer, and we need to take advantage of that natural drive and provide opportunities for them to build on their science understanding. There is so much “information” out there that people need to have the knowledge and skills to evaluate the information in order to figure out what is based on science and what “information” is being promoted for other motivations. We want knowledgeable people who can think. Children need science!

Do you foresee that the misperception of science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take science courses?
I foresee the misperception of science being too hard disappearing when people who our students look up to stop portraying science that way and when our students are given more opportunities to engage in authentic science so that they can see for themselves. When our students stop hearing that science is too hard and they actually get involved themselves, they will learn that science is very intriguing.

Science is about following your curiosity. Science involves exploring, experimenting, learning, failing, learning from failing and persevering to explore more. Students will see that it is natural for everyone to go through those experiences in order to build on their previous understandings. I believe they will learn that science is an exciting adventure to learn more about their world.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
A dynamic and effective teacher loves learning herself. She brings the joy of learning to her students and helps them become self-directed and want to learn more. She knows and understands her students and instead of keeping them teacher-dependent she helps them in their journey to learn how to think, figure out how to answer their own questions and believe in themselves. A dynamic and effective teacher isn’t afraid to try new things, and she isn’t afraid to fail. She has a variety of outside interests to keep her balanced and believes in what she is doing.


Ashley Flatebo

  • Instructional coach, 11-year teaching veteran
  • Jefferson Elementary, Mason City Community School District

How can we get more students interested in science at a time when Iowa is working to grow its commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education?
We can get more students interested in science by providing them with opportunities that they can apply outside of the classroom. Teachers can start by increasing the amount of inquiry in their classroom. Giving students the opportunity to wonder, discover, and create through hands-on activities will build problem solvers and continue the interest in science as their education grows.

As students grow, partnering with authentic audiences outside of the school walls will lead to an increase in engagement and more meaningful products. Students will begin to understand the application of their curriculum to careers that are available to them.

Why is science so important in our education system?
Science allows students to ask questions and discover their answers through hands-on activities and collaboration. It teaches students that it is OK to take risks and fail while still learning valuable lessons. Science also serves as a connection to all other content areas and produces problem solvers, critical thinkers, and creative designers.

Do you foresee that the misperception of science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take science courses?
I believe this starts with the teacher. If a student walks into the room and is treated equally amongst their peers in any classroom, they will believe they can accomplish anything. As more schools are adopting STEM principles, the interest level in science topics will grow which will encourage students to continue taking science courses as they continue through their educational path.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
A dynamic and effective teacher is a teacher who believes that all students in their classroom have the ability to learn. This teacher works to provide opportunities that will encourage students to take risks and provide multiple pathways for their learning to continue. A dynamic and effective teacher encourages students to ask questions and discover in their own way. This teacher is engaging and motivating and continues in her own professional learning to bring new strategies to enhance the learning of her students.

 

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on August 18, 2017 at 7:33am.