GCU fetes finalists for top STEM teaching award

Lee Ann Howell (left), a science teacher in Fort Huachuca, is one of the state's 2021 finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honor in the nation for STEM educators. Top-level educators like Howell were honored Saturday at GCU, which hosted the Presidential Awards celebration.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Grand Canyon University on Saturday celebrated Arizona’s best math and science teachers, all finalists for the nation’s top teaching award for STEM educators.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching event also served as a forum for fostering an exclusive community of high-level STEM movers-and-shakers and giving these education bigwigs – including GCU alumni – a voice when it comes to elevating their teaching disciplines.

The National Science Foundation selected math educators Ariel Beggs of Tucson’s Imago Dei Middle School, Ashley Kessler of Poston Junior High in Mesa and Karen Maas of Gilbert Classical Academy as award finalists for 2021. They were invited to attend the event along with science educators who also are 2021 award nominees, including Lee Ann Howell of Colonel Smith Middle School in Fort Huachuca, Jill Christman of Canyon Del Oro High School in Oro Valley near Tucson, and Kristen Kohli of Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear.

Another finalist, Kristen Kohli (left), teaches science in Goodyear. Marni Landry, K12 STEM Outreach Manager at GCU (right), is a past Presidential Awardee.

The 2020 nominees, who could not be recognized with a formal event or awarded last year because of the pandemic, also attended. They are Robyn Yewell, a science teacher at Winifred Harelson Elementary in Tucson, and Agi Post, a math educator at Tucson Country Day School.

Winners of the award – up to 108 per year from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. territories and Department of Defense Education Activity schools – receive $10,000, a trip to Washington, D.C., and a certificate signed by the president of the United States.

Marni Landry, K12 STEM Outreach Manager for GCU K12 Educational Development, received the award herself in 2013, and it is through her that the University became the host for Saturday’s Presidential Awards celebration at GCU Arena Hall.

“It was important for us to host because this is the highest honor a math and science teacher can achieve in the country,” Landry said of the event, which also featured a recorded address by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and an address by GCU's Dr. Tacy Ashby, Senior Vice President of K12 Educational Development.

Landry added that GCU, originally a teachers’ college, is the perfect place to host such high-achieving math and science educators, especially because of the remarkable growth of STEM on the campus in recent years.

Panelists included (seated, from left) College of Education Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield, Arizona Teacher of the Year for 2020 Dr. Lynette Stant and GCU STELLAR Research team member Camden Marasco.

The ceremony was a chance to highlight the University’s STEM offerings and included a speaker panel from GCU: Dr. Meredith Critchfield, Dean of the College of Education; Dr. Lynette Stant, Arizona Teacher of the Year for 2020 and a GCU alumna; and Camden Marasco of the STELLAR Research team, which is scheduled to launch a microbial fuel cell to the International Space Station in May.

Landry recalled the preparation it took to apply for the Presidential Awards. Just getting nominated is no small potatoes.

“The extensive process includes videotaping, video lesson analysis, a written analysis and examination of your teaching philosophy, letters of recommendations and documents of evidence,” she said.

Dr. Kimberly Rimbey, Executive Director of Curriculum and Assessment in the Buckeye Elementary School District, won the award in 2001 and also knows its significance firsthand. The GCU alumna (and GCU College of Education Hall of Famer) said, “Getting this award is a really big deal,” and she remembers when she got the call that she had been named one of the best teachers in the country.

“That wait is a really long wait,” Rimbey said. She remembers other educators that year who announced they had received the award. But she hadn’t heard anything. “I found out the Friday before spring break that I was flying out on Sunday to go receive this award. So for them (current nominees), I think getting the phone call is such an exciting moment.”

Dr. Tacy Ashby, Senior Vice President of K12 Educational Development, spoke at the event.

The exciting moment for 2021 nominee Lee Ann Howell came after a trip to the grocery store, when she got a call from an award administrator who asked if she had checked her e-mail.

When she got home, she said, “I opened the email. I was the only one in my house, and I just fell to my knees. I was crying hysterically. I’m a rural educator, so it makes me tear up thinking about it. It was overwhelming, and I was truly honored.”

More than honoring the award finalists, Saturday’s event was an opportunity to gather high-level math and science educators together – both past awardees and nominees waiting to hear if they will become awardees – to share ideas, support each other and build a unique community of teachers.

Bringing together Presidential Awardee alumni is a new initiative by the National Science Foundation. The idea, said Landry, is “to help promote get-togethers like this to start to leverage the expertise that’s in this tiny pool of teachers – to help them feel like they have a community to work in, and then figure how that community can work together to improve education wherever they are.”

Stant, the first Native American woman to be named Arizona Teacher of the Year, said events like this are so important for a simple reason: “Across the country, we are struggling with teachers and keeping them in the classrooms, so being able to provide awards like this really gives us that second wind to keep going and doing what we do.”

She added that it’s even more important for teachers to be able to lean on each other so they won’t leave the classroom.

“The cohesiveness of having a community like this, where everybody has likeminded thinking, being able to bring all those ideas collectively into this space can only generate more ideas and foster more relationships,” Stant said.

Howell said she has been lucky to have strong teaching mentors, and to be able to be in a room and network with likeminded science and math educators is important. She already was thinking of how to connect her students in rural Fort Huachuca to students such as GCU’s STELLAR researchers.

Science teacher Robyn Yewell (left) is an award finalist from 2020 who was not recognized with an event last year because of the pandemic, but she was honored at Saturday's ceremony.

Robyn Yewell, an award finalist from 2020, recalled her time teaching virtually during the pandemic.

“It became more apparent why I needed to teach science every day. … It kind of has reignited my passion even more for science, especially in public schools. I almost felt like it was my calling to be educating kids in science during the pandemic because it became so much more real and relevant in terms of what we were doing and why we were doing it.”

She emphasized how, during that year, “I never have felt more of a community and more of a team member” – something she will feel, too, as part of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching community.

Landry said Saturday’s event was just that – all about building community.

“It’s strength in relationships,” Landry said. “I want them to feel like, ‘Oh, I forgot I have these people here that can support me. When they’re in the classroom, it doesn’t change the struggle of what it is to be a classroom teacher, so being reminded and reconnecting with people is of great value.”

Amanda Steele, K12 Educational Development Director of Communications, Marketing and Community Outreach, contributed to this story.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: High schoolers with a heart for STEM intern at GCU

GCU Today: GCU helps school engineer a brighter STEM future


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