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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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

The two math finalists are:

  • Rachel Giesmann, high school teacher at Mediapolis High School, Mediapolis
  • Maria “Gabby” Granadillo, middle school teacher at McKinley Middle School, Cedar Rapids

The two science finalists are:

  • Mike Todd, high school teacher at Ames High School, Ames
  • Mike Wedge, high school teacher at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, Sibley

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

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 4,700 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, award recipients are leaders in the improvement of math and science education and role models for their colleagues and in 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:


Rachel Giesmann

  • High school, 13-year teaching veteran
  • Mediapolis High School, Mediapolis

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?
The first battle in creating student interest in mathematics is to get all students to believe that they can do math. If we can push students to foster a growth mindset when it comes to mathematics, their fear will diminish and interest will increase. To do this it is important that we as math teachers push our methods away from expecting students to solely memorize and replicate procedures. Instead we need to push students to explore and solve problems in the classroom. We need to foster creative and flexible thinking. We need to remove the pressure of always getting the “right” answer and instead teach students how to reflect upon and inspect their errors so that they can advance their knowledge rather than feeling embarrassed. When we allow math to appear like the open subject that it typically is rather than the closed subject we often teach it to be, students will naturally become more interested in pursuing the subject.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?
The skills students learn in math classes are so important for students. Studying math teaches students to be strong problem solvers and develops their aptitude for critical thinking. No matter what field a student decides to explore after high school, critical thinking and problem solving will be necessary. Mathematics also can provide students with tools to communicate and strengthen logical arguments. In math class students don’t just pick up mathematical skills. I believe that they truly learn life skills.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math/science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math/science courses?
I do. I actually think it is a really exciting time to be a math teacher. There is more and more information coming out about how the brain learns mathematics. Teachers are starting to take this information and make shifts in their approaches that are really paying off for kids. Technology is advancing as well which helps students develop their conceptual understanding before they get bogged down by procedures. I think eventually we will see students view mathematics as a challenging field, but they will begin to be less scared of facing the challenge. Anecdotally I am already seeing more students take math beyond the graduation requirements than I did early in my career.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
The most effective teachers I have had the pleasure to learn from had a wide variety of styles, but one thing that they all had in common was that I could tell that they all cared about their students beyond simply just their students’ performance in the classroom. They were teachers who took the time to develop positive relationships with students in the classroom. Students are pretty quick to pick up on the teachers who may have flashy lessons but fail to really take an interest in who the students are. In my own teaching I have seen this to be true as well. Early in my career I was so excited to dive into content and begin teaching math. After a couple years I realized that I don’t teach math; I teach kids. Once I started focusing on getting to know my students I got more buy-in during the lessons in my math classroom. When students know you care about them they will work so much harder.

Maria “Gabby” Granadillo

  • Middle school eighth-grade math and algebra, seven-year teaching veteran
  • McKinley Middle School, Cedar Rapids

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?
We can get more students interested in math by designing lessons with rich tasks that encourage students to think out of the box, work collaboratively with classmates, and communicate ideas to others. As teachers, we can engage and motivate students to be interested in STEM fields by creating cross-curricular lessons allowing students to explore the interrelation among the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. We can reach out to local community leaders and business partners, drawing upon the mathematical expertise used in the field, in order to create innovative lessons and experiences that support solving existing problems in the community. In doing so, we make the mathematics relevant and purposeful and perhaps unlock doors to opportunities some students had never considered.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?
Math and science are dynamic subjects that encourage us to explore, investigate, create, experiment, and learn from experiences. These characteristics engage all learners to be thinkers and innovators, which are valuable skills needed to effectively solve any problem within multiple fields of study. Math and science nurture student curiosity, foster a growth mindset, and develop perseverance. The demands of the 21st century citizen require these skill sets, and mathematics and science provide the platform for developing independent and creative thinkers.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math/science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math/science courses?
Perceptions about math and science are evolving and leaning toward a more inclusive direction. We as teachers can alter perceptions by creating safe learning environments in our classrooms. We can change the misperception that mistakes are signs of failure and weakness and instead help students see mistakes as opportunities to make new connections to improve their level of understanding of any skill or topic. Learning is a process that requires us to push ourselves to the brink of our current knowledge in order to formulate new ideas. This means that we will not always have all the answers right away. As teachers we need to explain that the brain is a muscle that can be strengthened by engaging in productive struggle. We need to support students to become the owners of their learning and encourage them to be curious, take risks, explore, and invent in order to accomplish their own goals and dreams. Teachers have significant influence as change agents of this movement.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
Dynamic and effective teachers are reflective, constantly evolving, and aware of the unique potential of each student. Dynamic teachers are passionate life-long learners. They adapt their teaching practices continuously by reflecting on the academic strategies used in the classroom and the impact on their students. The effective teacher believes in his or her students and meets them at their current level. These teachers incessantly work to find effective ways to support young people to become independent learners and achieve their full potential. Most important, the dynamic teacher makes math memorable, realizing that students will not remember the worksheets and lectures but rather the experiences that empowered them and opened their mind to a variety of ways of thinking.


Mike Todd

  • High school science, 12-year teaching veteran
  • Ames High School, Ames

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?
By engaging them in meaningful work. Students get excited about learning science when they can be part of the solution to the issues that face our communities. Strategies like high-quality project-based learning embed the learning of science and other concepts within long-term, interdisciplinary projects. These projects allow students to see the relevancy of science to their lives.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?
If students develop a deep understanding of the nature of science, they understand how science knowledge is created, its limitations, and its utility. Citizens with this knowledge can seek out and use science as part of an informed decision-making process. We need future citizens who are going to approach problems with the attitude that they might not possess all the knowledge they need in order to make an informed decision, and have the skills to seek out the relevant science.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math/science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math/science courses?
From a student's perspective, I think it's less of a matter of being too hard and more about not being worth the effort. But when science is learned for the sake of informing decisions and trying to work on real-world projects, it is learned after students have deemed it necessary to learn. When students are working on things they care about, there is little they will say isn't worth it, even if they are struggling. We need to help students understand that struggle and failure are part of the process when trying to achieve big outcomes. How else will they develop the skills necessary to meet their own standard of success in their lives?

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
We are all teachers. An effective teacher is willing to get to know their students on a personal level. An effective teacher motivates his or her students by making all learning relevant and learned in the context of real-world projects. Teachers’ courses change every year for the better and are often driven by current events. This involves some level of ambiguity as the ends of a real project are not always clear. And with some aspects of the project, the teacher is inevitably engaged in the learning process with their students. This is a perfect opportunity for the teacher to model the learning process for students. Everything cannot be figured out in advance and such is life, but planning and preparation are key skills for future success that students can develop.

Mike Wedge

  • High school science, 16-year teaching veteran
  • Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, Sibley

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?
We need to start young, preschool and kindergarten. At Sibley-Ocheyedan, we've developed a K-12 STEM program that emphasizes providing students the opportunities and experiences necessary to develop an interest (which hopefully evolves into a passion) for STEM. I also think it's critical to give teachers time and resources to develop their own skills and abilities, which is why the STEM grants are so vital.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?
I really don't think we, as teachers, do a very effective job (in the broad sense) of giving students opportunities to see how math and science are really used in our society. Without a sense of purpose or relevance, kids quickly lose interest. Thus, the importance of math/science is well understood by the adults (for the most part), but is typically lost on our audiences. The importance cannot be understated – math and science are foundational to developing critical thinking skills and giving students experiences in solving problems.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math/science being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math/science courses?
Math and science should be challenging – you can't make them any less "hard." What I've tried to do is surround myself with other teachers who strive to give students confidence in their math/science abilities by helping them develop a growth mindset (thanks to Carol Dweck!). If students understand that learning is a process and that it gets really ugly and deflating sometimes, but that's okay, you start to change the perception that math/science are just "too hard." "Hard" is good and necessary! But, we need to do a better job of helping students understand how these courses actually help re-wire the brain so they can perform better.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?
I think the most effective teachers are the ones who make it their No. 1 goal to get to know their students and who build a deep reservoir of trust. This is especially important when teaching tough math/science courses. Students need to know (at the gut level) you won't throw them under the bus – that you can't make the tests any easier, but you can give them opportunities to build confidence – that you believe learning is really a process and they deserve second or third chances. As for dynamic, teachers who readily embrace whatever professional development goal their district has in mind (whether they agree or not) are the ones who show themselves to be the most willing to commit to doing something new or better for themselves and their students.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on March 22, 2018 at 10:27am.