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Educators named for excellence in math, science teaching

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Educators named for excellence in math, science teaching

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

The two math finalists are:

  • Sharon K. Jaeschke, Southeast Valley High School, Gowrie
  • Stephanie S. Steines, Decorah High School, Decorah

The two science finalists are:

  • Bradley Jacobson, Central Academy, Des Moines Public Schools
  • Carol Reierson, North Fayette Valley Community School District, Elgin

“Iowa's educators have made the state a leader in science, technology, engineering and math education,” said Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise. “These award-winning teachers lead the way toward excellence and are an inspiration to all.”

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:


Sharon K. Jaeschke

  • 34-year teaching veteran
  • Southeast Valley High School, Gowrie

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?

To get more interest in math, infuse creativity and planning into lessons so that concepts are approached in multiple ways. Find ways to relate the learning to students’ lives and realize that grades cannot be solely based on how quickly students understand. For example, during my algebra unit involving exponential growth, we delve into word problems first – students get a sense for the difference between exponential vs. linear change by observing it happen in situations involving them. Then we investigate the laws of exponents – which can be more tedious and abstract. Students may not learn the laws perfectly, but they do gain an appreciation for the need to study the concept.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?

Science and math education are important because in many ways our survival depends upon the appropriate use of these subjects. Science education teaches students to interpret our universe and find ways to meet our present and future needs.

Math is regarded as the language of science. In math courses, students learn how to measure and compare quantities so that we can scientifically study changes in our environment. Further, math education teaches students to create models which will allow more accurate predictions and conclusions. Effective math and science education give us greater power over our future.

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

Yes, once we create teachers who believe math/science is not too hard for students to learn. After mentoring for 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that these beliefs are created early in a person’s teaching career. To battle this, I propose that first-year math/science teachers be allowed to team teach at least one period a day with an exemplary teacher who believes all students can learn. I came to this conclusion from a personal experience.

A few years ago we hired a new teacher and it was clear that math came easily to him. He shared with me that he achieved the highest AP exam in his high school math class without studying. His goal was to help others also experience success. However, when he encountered students who struggled, he wasn’t able to find ways to help them. Through our mentoring sessions, it became obvious that he was starting to believe that not all students could learn math. To help him, I proposed that we team teach our pre-calculus course the next school year.

The next year we team taught Pre-Calculus – from the lesson preparation, to the presentation methods, to the classroom management, to situations in class, to grading, to the student interventions. I worked to instill my belief that all students can learn math. It was hard for my mentee to accept the need to relentlessly search for effective lessons and then deliver them with energy. I tried to convince him that it is not about the math — it is about creating confident and capable students.

Confident and capable students are usually not intimidated by difficulty – but to become confident and capable these students need teachers who believe that they can learn.

Another barrier discouraging students from taking more math and science is the use of class rank in which students are ordered by their course grades. Class rank should no longer be rewarded by high schools or colleges. Class rank fools students into thinking they can (or can’t) succeed, especially in regard to math and science. Many students choose against high school math and science courses because they worry it will cause their class rank to fall and they may lose scholarships or awards.

A student’s class rank tells you nothing about how much was learned or how prepared the student is to seek a successful and satisfying life. Instead of class rank, students should be rewarded for the number and variety of high school courses they successfully completed. Very few students fail my upper level math courses, but many decide not to take them to preserve their class rank.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?

A dynamic teacher realizes that student interest is not inborn, it is acquired. This teacher develops techniques to arouse student interest in the learning objectives. They usually do it in two ways: by relating material to the student’s life experiences or by accentuating something that is novel or unexpected. Further, to make each lesson effective, there is a purposeful plan for each lesson to sustain the energy and extend it to the learning objectives. These teachers refuse to settle on the same class experience, delivered in the same way, every day of class.

Stephanie S. Steines

  • 22-year teaching veteran
  • Decorah High School, Decorah

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?

Students need to see the relevance in mathematics. The more we, as educators, demonstrate to them how math is used in a variety of fields, the more they will appreciate its finer details. Infusing our lessons with connections to cross-curricular content helps them see the application of the mathematics they are learning. Building interest in mathematics also requires a commitment to helping students recognize that mathematics is not the closed, procedural subject people often view it to be. We need to help students see that math is not just about rote memorization, but rather involves creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Appreciating the problem-solving and critical-thinking processes involved in mathematics will make the subject more appealing to students who crave something more than just a list of rules to memorize. Supporting our students in their efforts to build their problem-solving skills and encouraging the development of a growth mindset will give them confidence to take on the challenges present in their mathematics courses.

Why is math/science so important in our education system?

Whether or not students ultimately enter a field that is heavily dependent on math and science, it is guaranteed that they will face situations that require careful problem solving and critical thinking. Math and science courses provide students an opportunity to develop those skills with the support of adults who care about their progress and want to help them succeed. Math and science courses often present students with challenging content requiring collaboration with peers and a certain amount of productive struggle. Meeting these challenges allows students to develop their skills in communication and perseverance and provides them the chance to exercise a growth mindset. These are skills needed regardless of the field in which students eventually find themselves.

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

Combating the perception that “math is too hard” has to be a system-wide effort. From early on in their education and on through middle school, high school, and beyond we must make efforts to foster a growth mindset in our students. We need to help students understand that their brain is like a muscle and that making it stronger and “smarter” requires the same kind of effort needed to build a strong body. When students understand that making mistakes is okay, that they can learn from those mistakes, and that this is a vital part of the learning process, they begin to buy-in to the effort necessary to build understanding. Through this process, we help students build their confidence in tackling challenging material with the goal that while they may still have some perception that “math is hard,” they will feel confident adding “but I can do it” to that statement as well.

What makes for a dynamic and effective teacher?

Dynamic and effective teachers regularly find ways to show their students they care. Not only do they care about the work their students do in class and the progress they make, but good teachers also care about their students as individuals. When a teacher invests in building relationships with his or her students, he or she can better understand where the students are in their learning and what strategies will best help those students to move forward in their understanding. Feeling a personal stake in the progress of their students motivates effective teachers to reflect on their practice, always with a focus on how they can help their students learn and grow.


Bradley Jacobson

  • 15-year teaching veteran
  • Central Academy, Des Moines

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

Through science, students learn to ask questions, gather data, draw conclusions, and reflect on their findings. In an engaging science class, students learn how to think critically and create evidence-based arguments. These are important skills for academic success but also for informed citizenry. Learning to think critically, asking probing questions, and understanding how to interpret evidence are vital skills.

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

The single biggest impact on my views of science/STEM teaching and learning comes from my personal experience in my high school physics class. My high school physics teacher made science fun, engaging, and challenging. He showed us that you can learn physics through the eyes of a scientist. We didn’t learn about physics by reading it in a book, doing cookbook labs, and lots of practice problems from the book. We learned physics by being scientists. In class, we observed demonstrations and then developed a list of observations and questions from the demonstration. We narrowed our list and developed a lab to investigate what we saw. We analyzed our data, drew conclusions as a class and used our conclusions to make predictions. We were engaged, we were constantly thinking and confronting our misconceptions, we were learning.

When students get an opportunity to learn as a scientist, they are not only learning the scientific concept, but they are learning how to analyze data, draw conclusions, communicate as a community, and use models to make predictions. Learning scientific concepts helps students develop a better picture of the world around them. Learning to analyze data, draw conclusions, communicate, and use models to make predictions develops students into critical thinkers in all aspects of their life.

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

I love getting the opportunity to watch students start to develop their passion. During high school, students are discovering who they are and what drives them. That may or may not be science, but their excitement and enthusiasm when talking about their passion is infectious. When students are passionate about science, they investigate new ideas on their own and bring in their burning questions. When we start talking about these questions, it reignites my own enthusiasm for learning. Their questions force me to think deeper about the material and seek out new learning for myself. This excitement for learning is contagious in the classroom and models lifelong learning.

If you could do one thing, leave one mark, on the science teaching profession, what would it be?

I am a huge advocate of learning science by doing science. I want to leave my mark by continuing to develop programs that put students in the role of scientists. When students learn through doing science, they develop not only their scientific knowledge, but the skills to be successful in all aspects of their lives. They learn to think critically, communicate with stakeholders, work productively in groups, and build confidence to take on new challenges.

Carol Reierson

  • 36-year teaching veteran
  • North Fayette Valley Community School District

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

Science is the key to how our world works. It is the field of study in which students unlock how to solve problems that exist and uncover new and exciting things that explain our world. They can be curious about and understand how our world is impacted by our decisions and practices. Science allows students to investigate what they are curious about, communicate the evidence and explanations so as to help them understand the phenomenon or devise solutions to problems. Science can be a collaborative journey for students. Learning through its study that when we work together to learn and solve problems we are a strong force for knowledge and change. The importance of science cannot be overlooked as any small study or investigation may lead to bigger discoveries or better uses of current information for the good of our world. The students of our education system deserve to know the importance of the practices and core ideas that science stands on today to advance their generation in the years to come.

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

I have taught for many years, but until the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), I don’t think I truly had the big picture of science instruction as it should be executed. NGSS has made a significant impact on my teaching. The three-dimensional nature of NGSS makes my teaching and assessment more coherent. It requires me to think deeply about the connections to bring out between concepts for students. I am more intentional about providing opportunities for all science and engineering practices and building proficiency with them. I am also grounding my instruction in problems and phenomenon that help students connect their work to their world. NGSS is now the backbone of my teaching.

The largest impact on my understanding of science learning has come from my training using the Science Writing Heuristic approach in my classroom. In my early years of instruction, I relied on a textbook or kit to guide my decision making for what students should learn next. As I worked with the science writing heuristic, I became more aware that student questions drove learning in much the same way as intended by predesigned curricular materials, but allowed student ownership of their learning. This ownership allowed for deeper engagement and curiosity to be present in my classroom. The writings of the students showed their proficiency with the standards they were trying to meet. They were able to argue their evidence with more conviction and were more willing to take risks, make mistakes, and go back to dig for more evidence if it was needed. My classroom became a true laboratory of learners who owned their learning.

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

Many middle schoolers don’t really know the path they are going to take for a career. I enjoy the curiosity that still exists in a middle school student’s world and how I can expose them to opportunities that exist in the realm of science. Many are great risk takers and given the freedom to fail, will take on any learning task put forth in my science classroom. They expect the education system to make sure that what is taught is relevant to them and their world or they are quick to dismiss its importance. This challenge for the middle level educator makes every day a fun adventure. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out those experiences that will pique their interest and keep them engaged in learning.

If you could do one thing, leave one mark, on the science teaching profession, what would it be?

The most important mark I want to leave on the science teaching profession is on students. I want my students to be inspired to constantly question their world and how it works. I want them to leave school and use the opportunities that I’ve offered for learning to spark interest in science and engineering careers. Hopefully, making their own mark in the world. But most of all, if I can inspire and help others to become teachers, dedicated to teaching science with the integrity it deserves, I will be able to leave my mark on the science teaching profession. I would be honored that others are inspired by me to continue the hard work and dedication it takes to teach.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on August 18, 2022 at 11:50am.