Award-Winning Science Teacher: “How I Came to Study, Teach, and Love Science”

Obama greets teachers at the White House

President Barack Obama meets with Presidential award for excellence in math and science teaching winners in the East Room of the White House, March 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Recently I stood in the East Room of the White House as President Obama welcomed and congratulated recipients of the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). This immense honor made me feel very proud, and I experience pride by reflecting on the people who have guided me toward an accomplishment.

I began to reflect about how I came to study, teach, and love science. I recalled a friend, braver than me, who encouraged me join her at the remote scientific station where I learned to love fieldwork. And I thought of professors whose contagious enthusiasm got me excited about photosynthesis. But I suddenly realized that the reason I saw myself as capable in science at all was because a teacher once told me, “You might be the first woman to walk on Mars.” I was surprised to discover how much my identity as a scientist was largely shaped by his belief in me.

Many of my PAEMST colleagues were already aware that role models get children hooked on STEM. In fact, the importance of STEM role models was one of the major themes of discussion among PAEMST recipients and the scientists with whom we met during four days of celebrating and learning in Washington, DC.

During a visit to the National Science Foundation, a group of scientists fondly shared stories of teachers who inspired their career paths.  At another discussion, teachers buzzed with agreement when a panel of physicists called for greater visibility of female scientist role models to inspire more girls to pursue science.

My fellow educators don’t just agree; they’ve designed school-based programs to foster relationships between students and STEM role models. One teacher organizes single-sex conversations among scientists and students, so that relationships are build on interest in science, as well as gender identity. This teacher does not leave mentoring to chance because she knows role models can inspire a life-long love of science and the confidence to pursue STEM careers.

Recently, my student Tattiana confessed, “People don’t think I like science because of the way I look.”  We began talking about what it’s like to love science and to be a woman, when her working image of a scientist is an elderly white man. Our conversation highlighted that, as a woman and her teacher, I might be the person most responsible for fostering her identity development as a female scientist this year.

My fellow PAEMST recipients constantly inspire young people like Tattiana to engage with science and math. I’m glad that so many women among this year’s winners are modeling our passion for STEM for the young girls we teach.  However, teachers of color were underrepresented, and as a result recipients did not reflect the diversity of America’s students. This year, I hope educators, parents, and students will visit https://www.paemst.org/nomination/nominate to nominate more amazing science and math teachers of color. By recognizing a diverse group of science and math educators, we will help all of our students discover their own potential to succeed in STEM careers.

Erin Dukeshire teaches sixth grade science at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, Mass. She is a 2012 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

2 Comments

  1. Congratulations to these teachers. You have entered an honorable profession, and we need more of you in math, chemistry and physics.

    But I reserve this comment for the topic of “role models”. I have been a practicing engineer for more than 40 years now, entering the field when there were only 1% women. I have often been asked “why” I entered the field, especially since there were so few women, when I was first generation college in my family, and because I was raised in a remote rural area. My reasons had more to do with my passion about solving problems and being part of spaceflight than what my teachers and mentors looked like. It started with my parents, neither one of whom were college educated, and only one who had a high school diploma. My parents gave me the self confidence to ask questions, the appreciation of education, and, very importantly, the work ethic to strive for my goals. I was taught by them to treat everyone who offered support, equally. Because there were so few women in engineering, 99% of my mentors, supporters, and cheer leaders were all men–and including my father and brothers. Don’t believe the media myth that all men don’t support women in engineering and science. I wouldn’t have achieved what I have without the support and mentorship of many men. I judged my “role models” not by the exterior they were born with but by the character they developed and the contributions they were giving back to society. I wanted to be part of that “team” regardless of appearances.

    After giving the subject of role models much thought, I am now deeply concerned about the hypothesis that young students only learn and gain confidence about science and engineering when interacting with someone who looks and acts like them. It appears to me that when we start to select our mentors and teachers based on the color of their skin and their gender, we are engaging in the very practice we have been trying to avoid, and teaching the students that this does matter. I have come to this realization after 40 years of participating in “STEM” programs for young women across the nation. I have talked to thousands of elementary, middle school, and high schools girls about science and engineering. Yes, the numbers have increased, but, after 40 years, are only hovering at about 20%. After asking the young women, and especially those of color, about why they chose not to enter science and engineering, I am finding that it has to do more with family expectations, other social pressures and the media, than what the teachers or I look like. We do not choose our vocations because we want to be someone else, we choose them because the “work” touches our soul and fulfills a need to be able to uniquely contribute something to society and our lives. If we continue to wait for someone who looks like us, who will lead? When the message we give to young people is that they MUST learn or it is BETTER to learn from someone who looks like them, what exactly are we teaching them?

    I am now an engineering professor. There are 90 freshmen students in my first year engineering class. Only 4 of them are young women, although I wish there were more. However, they all seem very confident and able to take care of themselves. But I care most that all of them graduate and are able to contribute to society. With the acute shortage of engineers in this nation, we need them. I am hopeful that none of them are evaluating my class content and what I can teach them based on my gender and the color of my skin (most of the class are “minority”). If so, I will be very saddened to be judged in that way. However, based on their questions and enthusiasm, I am confident that they are there to learn, regardless of what I look like. After all, I have a few unique things I can share with them, having flown in space five times, and having been a part of the team which built the Space Shuttle.

    • I completely agree. When I graduated with my Bachelors of Science in Engineering Physics in 1994, I was the only black in the department, much less in the class. You have to have the strength to want to do well regardless of the color of your teacher’s skin. I didn’t pursue a science career, and I was severely put off by the politics. But I don’t agree a black teacher would have made dimensional analysis any easier to understand.

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