Editor's note: See related article: "Obama honors UD professor for excellence in mentoring"
9:04 a.m., Jan. 15, 2010----Among the 87 elementary school teachers nationwide who were in Washington, D.C., recently to be recognized as winners of the 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), four were UD graduates, a large percentage for any single institution of higher learning.
The UD winners were Stacie Ann Broden, who received a bachelor's degree in 1996; Anne Marie Magaha, who received a bachelor's degree in 1984; Karen Helen Fredricks, who received a bachelor's degree in 1975; and Jo Anne Pryor Deshon, who received a master of education degree in 1980 and an Ed.D. in 2000.
Each year the National Science Foundation (NSF) bestows the award on up to two teachers from each state and the U.S. territories, one for mathematics and one for science. This is the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics or science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. Among the awardees for 2008, 35 states -- including Delaware -- had two awardees.
NSF administers the PAEMST program on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Every odd year, NSF recognizes teachers in secondary schools.
The pinnacle of the teachers' Jan. 4-7 recognition week agenda was a trip to the White House and the privilege of attending President Barack Obama's Jan. 6 press conference that addressed the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for the country's future. Prior to the press conference, Obama addressed the group during a photo session in the East Wing.
“That was an amazing experience,” Broden said of meeting the president. “During the group photo session, I was right in front of him. I feel like he's a real person and that he knows the American people. It was very evident that he supports teachers and wants to make positive changes in the [educational] system.”
Broden, a Connecticut native who teaches second grade in Southbury, Conn., was her state's award recipient in mathematics. She received her undergraduate degree in elementary and special education.
“Listening to what [Obama] had to say, I hope he'll be able to follow through on his education initiatives,” Magaha said. “I was so pleased he took his time to talk with us.”
Magaha, who teaches kindergarten in the Abington (Pa.) School District and was also an award recipient in mathematics, was Pennsylvania's lone presidential awardee. She received her undergraduate degree in elementary education.
“It's a feeling I'm not going to get over for a long time. The award was wonderful, but the feeling I had when I left the White House was better [than the award itself],” Fredricks said.
Fredricks, a fourth-grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Delaware's Christina School District, was the state's award recipient in mathematics. She also received her undergraduate degree in elementary education.
Deshon, the lone science award recipient among the four, has a master's and doctorate from UD and teaches first grade at John R. Downes Elementary in Newark, Del. She said that getting to attend the press conference at the White House and meeting President Obama was the highlight of her experience.
“He was speaking to the country, but he was also speaking to us,” she said.
Obama's press conference featured an introduction of the president by one of the teacher awardees from Minnesota. During the conference, Obama announced a $250 million initiative to train math and science teachers to help the U.S. become a world leader in those areas once again. This “Innovate to Educate” initiative is meant to train more than 100,000 teachers.
A special surprise, courtesy of Vice President Biden
Along with UD Trustees Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences Patricia DeLeon, who was also in Washington, D.C., to receive a presidential award for science mentoring, Fredricks and Deshon enjoyed unexpected special treatment at the White House.
While the group of teachers was waiting to go through the ID check at the east gate of the White House, one of Vice President Joe Biden's aides appeared and asked, “Who's from Delaware?”
Deshon explained, “First, I thought they were admitting us in alphabetical order by state and it was time for Delaware. When we raised our hands, one of Vice President Biden's people came over to tell us that the vice president had requested that we sit with him and [his wife] Jill at the press conference.”
Fredricks and Deshon were thrilled. At the conclusion of the press conference, DeLeon, Fredricks and Deshon each shook hands with the president.
But that wasn't all.
After the press conference, the three received another special invitation, this one from Biden himself. “Would you like to come see my office?” he asked.
“Of course, we said yes,” Deshon said. In addition to meeting Jill Biden at the press conference, “along the way to the West Wing, Vice President Biden introduced us to the people who support him and help run many of the operations at the White House.”
One of Biden's White House staff was Newark native and 2004 UD grad Jillian Doody, who had worked for him while he was Delaware's senior senator and is now the director of correspondence for the vice president. Doody was one of Deshon's students at Newark's West Park Elementary School in the late 1980s.
“She looked familiar, but she had grown up a lot since first grade,” Deshon said.
The awardees' preparation
The application process for the PAEMST is rigorous but valuable, as the nominee reflects on a science or mathematics concept that he/she believes is difficult for students to understand, important for students to understand and related to more advanced concepts that will be learned later.
Nominees spend a considerable amount of time and energy putting together an application portfolio of materials as directed by NSF, including a classroom video dealing with a specific science or mathematics lesson. Up to three finalists are chosen by each state in each of the two disciplines, and NSF evaluates their submissions and chooses the award recipients.
Magaha said, “I'm very proud and honored to be receiving this award for something I love to do. I eat, sleep and breathe education. I would not be here, though, without the support of the Abington District and the community.”
Fredricks and Deshon both spoke of the help they've received from collaboration with UD faculty.
“I learned so much in preparing for this event,” Fredricks said. “Val Maxwell of MSERC [UD's Math and Science Education Resource Center] recommended several books, and I also collaborated with Dr. Christine Ebert.”
“The UD experience that prepared me most for this award application,” Deshon said, “was the collaboration I'd done with Dr. Nancy Brickhouse, Dr. Danielle Ford, Dr. Betty Weir, and two of their graduate students. I worked with them for two years on an NSF grant.”
In fact, one of these graduate students, Julie Kittleson, who received a doctorate in 2006, did much of her dissertation research in Deshon's third-grade classroom. Kittleson is now an assistant professor of mathematics and science education at the University of Georgia.
Each of the four Blue Hen teachers referred to the opportunities they've had because of the University of Delaware.
Fredricks says the degree of collaboration that UD education faculty have had with her and other alumni professionals in the field has made a big difference in her career.
“Both my adviser and my student-teaching experience at the University were awesome,” she said. “Dr. Betty Weir opened me up to opportunities I would not have had otherwise. She helped me build my leadership skills as a professional.”
Deshon said, “I've always felt that my best professional development has been through the University of Delaware -- my master's and doctoral work as well as programs like the Delaware Writing Project and the Democracy Project. One of the recurring questions we were asked during the week was 'What has to change [in education]?' Consistently, one of the answers was 'professional development,' in terms of the importance of content knowledge and creating time for teachers to discuss pedagogy with colleagues. The University of Delaware has been a great resource for me in this regard.”
Both Broden and Magaha lauded the experiential opportunities they had as education undergraduates.
Broden said that she has learned in talking with other teachers that very few had received the hands-on classroom experience that UD offered her. “For the entire four years at Delaware I was placed in classrooms where I got experience teaching children,” she said.
“Even as a freshman,” said Magaha, “I had the opportunity to be in a real classroom, which was great. Dr. Jack Pikulski was one of the professors who really got me fired up about teaching.”
The recognition week experience
The teachers noted how rich the week was from a professional standpoint. In addition to their White House visit, the awardees were kept quite busy over the four days meeting with math and science practitioners and policymakers. Included were an entire day of meetings at NSF, an event at the National Museum of Natural History, a post-White House meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the formal recognition ceremony and reception at the National Academy of Sciences and a congressional breakfast on the final day at the Rayburn House Office Building.
Deshon and Fredricks also had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Sen. Tom Carper's education staff at the Hart Senate Office Building after the congressional breakfast.
“It's been overwhelming how professionally we've been treated,” Fredricks noted. “Important education leaders and policymakers asked us questions and actually wanted our answers.”
Unlike awardees from most states, who may not have known the other recipient from within their own state, Fredricks said that the fact that she was “sharing this honor with a colleague [Deshon] whom I've known for 27 years” made this recognition week particularly special.
Broden said that “all the people I've been able to meet and being able to have conversations about education with teachers and scholars from all over the country” were highlights of her recognition week experience.
Of course, meeting the president was a universally shared high point. As the teachers returned from the White House, each bore a wide smile.
“President Obama gave us 'the award' by having us at that press conference and addressing us personally,” Fredricks said. “This was the best day of my professional life.”
Article by Mark Deshon
Photos by Mark Deshon and the White House