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Educators named for excellence in math, science teaching

Thursday, September 6, 2018

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

The three math finalists are:

  • Natalie Franke, 2nd grade, Brookview Elementary, Waukee
  • Deborah Little, 4th grade, Denver Elementary, Denver
  • Chris Mathews, 4th grade, East Elementary, Ankeny 

The three science finalists are:

  • Lisa Chizek, 4th and 5th grade, North Tama Elementary, Traer
  • Katie McGrane, 4th grade, Margaretta Carey Elementary School, Waverly
  • Jill Payne, 5th grade, Jefferson Intermediate, Pella

“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 5.000 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:


Natalie Franke

  • Elementary School, 22-year teaching veteran
  • Brookview Elementary, Waukee

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 we, in turn, 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 course?

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. These specific teacher moves help students make gains in their learning and also guides teacher instruction.

Deborah Little

  • Elementary School, 26-year teaching veteran
  • Denver Elementary, Denver

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 that part of the answer to this question lies in the types of math learning we are offering our students. Many students will quickly tune out if the math lessons are solely procedure-based with a focus on the memorization of steps. 

We don’t want students to see math as a stand-alone subject where the teacher must show them how to solve each problem. Students need to experience rich, contextualized math tasks that spring from inquiry and allow them to collaborate and develop effective and creative solutions. 

I also believe that teachers in elementary school settings need to help students make connections to how mathematical problem solving is linked to STEM careers. One way is to look for opportunities to partner with local businesses so that students see first-hand how these companies need problem solvers with mathematical reasoning skills. Students in our fourth grade, for example, visit Schumacher Elevator Company each year. As they tour the facility, they get to interact with people in different facets of the company and learn how they use science, technology, engineering, and mathematical problem solving in their jobs.

Why is math so important in our education system?

There are several reasons. Math is needed in daily activities, such as cooking, building, shopping, sewing, traveling, and personal finances. 

The critical thinking and problem-solving skills of people with mathematical backgrounds are needed to solve national and global challenges, such as energy sources and food production. While careers in STEM-related fields are growing exponentially, repetitive tasks are being replaced in our country by technology and outsourcing. For every 1 unemployed person, there are 1.7 STEM-related jobs available. Conversely, in the area of non-STEM jobs, there are about 4 unemployed persons for every job. It is increasingly vital that we prepare students with the tools to solve novel problems and equip them to enter into STEM-related careers.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math courses?

I think we can extinguish the misperception that math is too hard by focusing on meaningful math activities that build students’ confidence as mathematicians. The notion that some people have “math brains” and some people do not is a misperception that all stakeholders need to combat. 

I think that if we provide growth mindset activities that teach that our brain is like a muscle that can change, adopt, and grow, it will encourage students to develop the mentality needed to take risks and persevere when solving problems. Students will come to look at mistakes in math as opportunities to learn. 

Additionally, I believe educators need to stop putting students in situations that cause math anxiety. Too many elementary classrooms have students take timed tests on math facts or require students to play computer games that require speedy entry of math fact answers. Emerging research shows that the working memory shuts down for many students under stressful conditions. Being good at memorizing the answers to math facts does not necessarily mean that students will develop mathematical-thinking skills or that they will be able to retrieve those facts in the future. Emphasis on these types of timed situations send the harmful misperception that “good” math students are those that can solve fact problems quickly, and if one needs more time, then they aren’t a “math person.” Instead, of having students blindly try to memorize facts, we need to provide instruction that develops their number sense and helps them with strategies to learn their facts.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?

There are many research articles and books describing the characteristics of dynamic and effective teachers, but I believe that three qualities stand out. Effective teachers foster relationships with their students and show them that they care about them as individuals. Good teachers also believe that all students can learn and demonstrate that belief, in part, by continually pressing them to do their best work and adjust instruction for learners to make that happen. The final thing that I notice about effective teachers is that they constantly reflect on their lessons, their student interactions, and assessment data and seek ways to improve.

Chris Mathews

  • Elementary School, 11-year teaching veteran
  • East Elementary, Ankeny

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?

Math instruction in many classrooms, schools and districts is transforming from worksheets and the repetitious practice of teacher-taught strategies into environments that value discovery, multiple methods to solve a problem and communication among peers in order to understand the way numbers work and why. 

Through our work of empowering children and helping them view themselves as thoughtful mathematicians, we are also influencing the way parents think about math. Often adults who view themselves as “not good at math” unintentionally pass this thought process on to their children so they themselves also believe they are not strong mathematicians. I believe the work students are doing in the classroom – making sense of problems, persevering and thinking strategically – partnered with our opportunities to talk with adults and helping them understand the importance of knowing everyone is a mathematician will change the feeling of math. 

No longer will math be something that is too hard to do and a task that must be suffered through with worksheets and memorization. Instead math will be more universally viewed as a natural thought process that allows students to answer the questions that they naturally want to answer. Math is becoming desirable and rewarding to more and more learners.

Why is math so important in our education system?

I believe the work students are doing as mathematicians strengthens their ability to reason and to communicate not only in their current classroom, but it continues to build and grow in their future classrooms. 

As more teachers move to incorporate the math practice standards into the experiences we provide for our students, students are developing skills that are important in any math lesson, at any age. Students are not just looking for the right answer and moving to the next problem. They are developing their ability to make sense and persevere through challenging aspects of mathematical scenarios. Students are improving their ability to share their thinking and having real conversations with their peers – conversations that involve discourse, not just surface level compliments. 

And while these skills deepen as a child grows and develops more sophisticated math thinking, they are not limited to mathematical conversations. Students who have the ability to persevere, communicate, make sense and problem solve will find success in their ability to think deeply about their reading and writing, their scientific explorations and their work in understanding the world around them.

Do you foresee that the misperception of math being too hard will eventually disappear, and all students will take math courses?

Yes. Educators are continuing to learn and understand how students think about mathematics and with this expanding knowledge we are creating opportunities where students employ their ability to think deeply, persevere and work hard, and make sense of challenging situations. 

The self-realized reward of “I understand, I can explain, I can teach others” as a result of investigating and sense making is very powerful. As entire buildings and districts embrace this understanding of children as mathematicians, a mathematical foundation is developing. As more and more teachers develop their work in this area, children’s contact with empowered teachers will become more consistent. Soon a child’s school experience starting with their first preschool teacher and moving right into high school classrooms will have environments structured to encourage sense making and perseverance. 

Their foundations in mathematics will be strong and each year will continue to build and add on to this foundation – including positive feelings about approaching tasks that are challenging. We are learning more and more about mindset. While it is not “every child gets an award,” it is about every child can think mathematically and can have a positive attitude about hard work and challenging experiences.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?

Dynamic and effective teachers first and foremost have a passion for the work they are doing and for the children they support every day, every year. Even in the challenging times, they know the work they are doing is valuable and significant. 

They recognize the importance of the child in front of them each day, always remembering that every child can learn and all children are mathematicians. Effective teachers work with a purpose that motivates them to be engaged and gives them strength to persevere. These teachers are reflective, always learning and growing and seeking to improve, and remembering to celebrate successes. They not only develop this ability to reflect within themselves for their own growth, but they support their students in developing their own reflective practices. 

Children feel important and empowered in the presence of a teacher who is dynamic and effective. However, our work does not stay within the four walls of our classroom. Effective and dynamic teachers are able to work with children and with adults in tandem. While the children are our priority, effective and dynamic teachers make adults feel important by offering encouragement and supporting them in their learning of how their children are thinking and problem solving. 

Many things we do in our classroom we can utilize when we work with each other as teachers such as providing support and feedback, creating opportunities to problem solve, communicating clear goals, sharing best practices, and adapting and editing our next short-term steps and possible long-term goals as a result.


Lisa Chizek

  • Elementary School, 18-year teaching veteran
  • North Tama Elementary, Traer

Why is learning science important in our education system/world?

Science is all around us. Our world needs people who are scientifically literate and understand the concepts and processes of science so they are able to make informed decisions for themselves, their families, and the world. Science is also very engaging and inspiring, and children want to learn more when science is involved.

What experience(s) have most impacted the way you think about science/STEM teaching and learning?

Working on my master’s degree in Science Education at the University of Northern Iowa made me really think about how children learn best and why I teach the way I do. This process helped me change to be a better teacher. I really started paying attention to how and what my students were learning so I could support their learning better. It is inspiring to see their enthusiasm for learning as they work. Their enthusiasm inspires me to want to learn more.

What do you most enjoy about teaching science at the elementary level?

I enjoy how each day brings something new and interesting to learn. I enjoy my students’ enthusiasm for science as well as my colleagues’ enthusiasm for teaching elementary science.

How do you ensure there is time for science in your elementary school?

I advocate strongly for elementary science. My colleagues and administration all see how valuable it is to integrate science daily in elementary classes. This understanding helps ensure there is time for science in our elementary school.

Kate McGrane

  • Elementary School, 9-year teaching veteran
  • Margaretta Carey Elementary School, Waverly

Why is learning science important in our education system/world?

Learning science is important in our education system because students not only gain an understanding of the way the world works around them, but they gain valuable critical thinking skills through scientific reasoning and negotiating with their peers.

What experience(s) have most impacted the way you think about science/STEM teaching and learning?

While attending a science methods course at Iowa State University, an instructor first introduced me to inquiry-based science. I had never learned science in that way and found it so interesting that the teacher expected us to learn about science without actually telling us what we were supposed to know! The class was one of the most fun and memorable courses I took throughout my entire experience at Iowa State, and I have been motivated ever since to make learning science an exciting and unforgettable experience for my students. 

In addition to my science methods course at Iowa State, I had the honor of teaching with Mason Kuhn when I began my career at Waverly-Shell Rock. Mason introduced me to the ASSIST Approach, which uses inquiry-based lessons to guide students toward a conceptual understanding of science. This process of inquiry allows students an opportunity to express their thoughts and justify their claims with evidence as they negotiate their interpretations of a concept. When I teach science through this approach, my students gain a true understanding of the way the world works, and their learning experiences stick with them for years to come.

What do you most enjoy about teaching science at the elementary level?

One thing I enjoy about teaching science at the elementary level is that the students are so excited about learning! Additionally, I enjoy helping students realize that everyone can be a scientist, and that we all have the ability and responsibility to think critically about the world in which we live!

How do you ensure there is time for science in your elementary school?

The wonderful thing about science is that students are constantly learning about it through everyday experiences. I use those experiences as teachable moments and never let an opportunity for my students to engage in scientific thinking pass by! In addition, I make science a priority in my classroom because I know that my students are learning scientific reasoning skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. Furthermore, my students meet many other learning standards outside of those included in the Next Generation Science Standards by reading, writing, and thinking mathematically during our science lessons.

Jill Payne

  • Elementary School, 15-year teaching veteran
  • Jefferson Intermediate, Pella

Why is learning science important in our education system/world?

Science is important for students to learn because the inquiry and problem-solving skills (science practices) learned in class will be essential skills in any class, workplace, or life in general. Whatever their future, students will have to know how to work as a member of a team, to question what they see, hear, and read, to have the confidence and communication skills to share their ideas and move their understanding forward, engage in argument and accept critique. By ensuring that our elementary students have science, we not only show them we value these practices, but also provide the opportunity for them to learn and practice them. 

Science also provides a platform for students to see the importance of wonder and perseverance. Whether it be finding a cure to what was once an incurable disease, understanding why some animals look/act the way they do, knowing how their own choices and decisions impact the environment, figuring out why and how something moves, or simply knowing what to do when they have a question, students will need the skills/content they learn in science. And, they come realize understanding doesn’t always come easily and things don't always work right the first time and that is ok. Failure moves us forward. It is not the end of the world, but rather a chance for growth. We just haven’t figured it all out...yet. Failure is the first right answer in what not to try next time and a chance to see where we can improve.

What experience(s) have most impacted the way you think about science/STEM teaching and learning?

Working with Dr. Brian Hand and the Science Writing Heuristic has had the biggest impact and completely transformed my philosophy on teaching. Students are in charge of their own learning and the most important thing I can do for them – and for me – is to get them talking. There has to be open, safe space for student discourse. Only when they know and I know what they are truly thinking right now, can we plan where to go next and move forward in our understanding of the concept together. 

Whether it be getting up in the middle of the night to watch a space launch or scouring the website for what’s new, I have always been interested in the work of NASA. So being a part of the Iowa Space Grant Consortium Partner School program was an awesome experience. What better place to facilitate my own learning about inquiry than at NASA? Not only did I get to tour several NASA sites, but I was also able to be a part of professional development, immersed in the actual learning and pedagogy of inquiry. The information I gained and the opportunities I had at each workshop not only enriched my understanding and wonder, but also our fifth grade space science units. It provided an opportunity to better teach space science topics in my classroom with the use of NASA’s educator resources and gave me direct access to NASA scientists and engineers willing to support the young scientists and engineers in my classroom. 

Attending the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teacher Academy allowed me to gain more content knowledge of the science and math I teach, broaden the strategies and resources I have to push student learning, as well as network with other teachers and professionals around the country that I continue to reach out to for ideas, advice, and support. I met and learned from leaders in their field, who are working to foster attitudes of inquiry and problem solving and help people see the importance of science in the classroom.

What do you most enjoy about teaching science at the elementary level?

The absolute best part about teaching science at the elementary level is watching students realize what they are capable of doing; seeing those ”a-ha” moments reached with excitement and pride knowing they themselves did the hard work to figure it out. I believe that each and every student in my classroom has the capability to learn, deserves the opportunity to do so, and is in control of their own learning. It is not my role as the teacher to merely give them the information they need, but rather to foster an environment in my classroom that will allow each learner to make their thinking public, no matter whether it is scientifically accurate or not, and be willing to negotiate their thinking to move forward. By creating an environment where students are willing to speak up, they take ownership in the learning. They ask the questions. The do the research and plan and carry out the investigations. And, they engage in argument based on their findings to answer their questions. It is so awesome to not only be able to see them do all of these things, but also to see their reaction when they realize all that they have done and learned.

How do you ensure there is time for science in your elementary school?

To ensure there is time for science in each of our elementary classrooms it has become a scheduled part of the day at all grade levels. Teachers now have a set time in their day to teach science and no longer have to try to squeeze it in or work pieces of it into other areas. To help support teachers in their efforts, I have helped to deliver professional development in the area of science. Working alongside my 5th grade science team, I help plan, organize, and deliver professional development opportunities throughout the year and in the summer, as well collaborate on unit plans, observe lessons and provide feedback, and work to develop common, vertically aligned assessments. I make sure other teachers know that my door is always open and I will support them in any way I can. As an elementary science department, we struggle together and succeed together and we are engaging students in experiences designed to elicit questions, design and run investigations, and explain phenomena through evidence.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 21, 2020 at 2:51pm.