By Dr. Nafeesa H. Owens, Ph.D., Program Director/PAEMST Program Lead, Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, National Science Foundation*
“Don’t be afraid to sell yourself.”
These are words of advice to science teachers applying for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). They come from Geological Society of America (GSA) member Lesley Urasky, who won the award in 2015 for teaching geosciences. Following her own advice, Lesley wasn’t afraid to talk about the unique skills and experiences that make her a world-class science educator.
Lesley cites past work as a mudlogger on Rocky Mountain oil fields; participation in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program and NSF’s PolarTREC expedition; and her focus on real-world, place-based investigations in the classroom for her interest in geoscience.
Being a member of GSA also was crucial to Lesley’s success – from using GSA’s ETeach library to find high-quality resources for her students to connecting with their recently published articles and blogs. Her membership also introduced her to her favorite educational activity: EarthCaching.
The First “Why?”
Why teach geoscience? Lesley believes that it is the field of science that most directly affects humans and society. Topics like energy use, environmental hazards and water conservation flood the national news each week. “Without an understanding of these processes,” she says, “our students won’t possess the ability to evaluate claims and evidence when making life decisions, whether it’s interpreting weather forecasts, buying a house, or voting for local and national officials.”
Lesley’s approach to teaching capitalizes on the importance of geoscience. She says for a science lesson to succeed, students need to be truly engaged and see the relevance of the lesson – to feel the need to understand why. She believes that her students at… school have been scientists ever since they asked the first “why” questions when they were little. The key is reminding them to keep asking.
So, how does she do it?
Make Science Relevant
Lesley’s career as a scientist and educator has taken her all over the globe and allowed her to work with an amazingly diverse range of individuals. She’s worked alongside NSF scientists and NOAA engineers, fellow high school educators and all-male drilling crews. These experiences taught her how to communicate scientific concepts to people of different backgrounds and education levels – including communicating to diverse students in the classroom. They also taught her the importance of learning about her students’ experiences and interests, which allows Lesley to make the science lessons relevant to them.
The most important part of any of her science lessons is the “hook” –real-world problems that students care about. She says a lesson is successful if students leave with more questions than when they started and they believe that there’s still more to learn and do. In her classroom, as in a professional scientific community, sometimes the experiment doesn’t work out. But Lesley sees this as a positive force. “Remember,” she says, “it’s science. Failure is what drives science forward.”
Applying for the Awards
Lesley didn’t fail when applying for the Presidential Awards, but she found the challenge of applying to be just as valuable. Being recognized with a national award for excellence has given her confidence in herself and her teaching strategies; and the application process helped cement in her the mindset of a reflective practitioner.
“The application process is very rigorous,” she says, “and forces you to deeply reflect on your pedagogical practices. I don’t know how many hours of video that I watched of myself and my classes, but I would dream about what I did and how I could do the lesson better the next time. It forced me to analyze my teaching, how I seek out professional development, as well as how I interact with my colleagues, students and their parents. As a result, I feel I have become a more accomplished practitioner of my craft.”
Lesley’s exceptional work in and out of the classroom took her to Washington, D.C., for the PAEMST national recognition event in September 2016. She networked with colleagues across all 50 states, met national leaders including former Chief Technology Officer of the United States Megan J. Smith, whom Lesley says is, “an inspiration to all young women considering a career in STEM.” Lesley also received a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
PAEMST are the nation’s highest honors for K-12 STEM teaching, and have been awarded to more than 4,700 teachers since the program began in 1983. Nominations and applications are currently being accepted for K-6th grade teachers at www.paemst.org. Nominating only takes a few minutes – and it could change a teacher’s life!
*The National Science Foundation administers the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) on behalf of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.