My last post told about our school’s trip to Moab in March and about the discovery of uranium in that area by Charlie Steen. Since then I have not been as active on this blog because I have been spending much of my spare time finding and applying for grants and now preparing for my fall classes. The last term in chemistry was also fairly hectic as we went through several units, including acids/bases, electrochemistry, and thermochemistry.
The grant game isn’t a very fun one to play. There are many losers and only a few winners, and a great deal of effort is required for what is often no reward at all. Unfortunately, as science teachers, we know that to do the engaging, exciting hands-on activities that are the hallmark of good teaching, we often need funds well beyond what our school districts can provide. During difficult financial times, when district budgets and state tax revenues are shrinking, more and more of us are applying for ever scarcer opportunities. So it becomes a numbers game; the more grants you apply to, the more your odds of success for a few of them. Sometimes you luck out.
During the period between March and May, when classes ended for the year, I applied to three grants. Two I haven’t heard back from yet (the Dreyfus grant program and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching [PAEMST]) but one, the McCartney-Dressman Grant, sent me a form e-mail last week saying we had not been selected. There were over 400 applications. In many cases, including this one, grant monies have stipulations such as requiring the schools to have a high number of underrepresented students, which means having a certain percentage of students with minority status, or classified as poor by the percentage applying for free or reduced lunches, or by being in an urban or rural geographical area. Walden School is located in Provo, Utah, which is not rural or urban, and although some of our students are on free or reduced lunches, the percentage isn’t particularly high. In other words, we’re not considered underrepresented. I knew that going in, but decided to try anyway.
For the PAEMST program, this is the first year in 15 that I have qualified. To apply, one has to be a science or math teacher (at least 50% load) in a public or private school and the application process is pretty intimidating. I went to a presentation at the Utah Science Teachers Association conference this last February, and found that in addition to a lengthy essay with supplemental exhibits, one has to also provide a 45 minute video of teaching that has no breaks in it – just one continuous lesson. This is harder than you might think, even for a video professional like myself (maybe especially for me) because I want good quality video as well as good quality teaching. I filmed my chemistry classes on two different days doing activities – one was testing Charles Law that gases expand when heated by having them measure the diameter of balloons as they were dipped in water of different temperatures. That video looked good and had some good comments by the students, but as I moved the camera the video started and stopped on its own, so I couldn’t use it.
Then I videotaped my students doing a lab testing the voltages between different metal electrodes. Not as interesting, perhaps, but it went well enough. I got some nice letters of recommendation from a student, a fellow teacher, and my school’s director, wrote up the essay, created a ten-page supplement document, and sent all of this off by the deadline in May. Now the people in Utah have to decide which applications to send on to the national selection committee, and we won’t find out if we’ve won until next May (a whole year). Then in December, 2012, if I’m selected, I get a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet President Obama (maybe – sometimes the president doesn’t show up to present the award named after him) and receive a check for $10,000. Yes, it’s quite a process and if I don’t make it (I don’t know how many actually finished applications – probably ten or so) then I have to wait for two years (2013) before I can apply again as they alternate high school and elementary teachers. Each state gets one math teacher and one science teacher per year (although sometimes the national committee doesn’t select anyone from a state if they feel none qualify).
As I was looking over the list of previous Utah awardees, I came across the name of a teacher I used to teach with at Juab High School. Janet Sutorius is an excellent math teacher who has also participated in the NASA Educator Workshop program at Dreyden Field Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base. Even after I left Juab HS, I did a workshop presentation with Janet on NASA educational programs at a state conference. Here is a nice article about Janet as an alumnus of Brigham Young University: Janet Sutorius Presidential Award. Other past awardees I know include Duane Merrill (I learned how to teach conceptual physics from him), Ron Cefalo, and others. These are all excellent teachers and role models for me.
The fact that I’ve been out in the wilderness teaching multimedia for ten years means I haven’t been in the spotlight for science teaching (even though I was doing all the NASA stuff). I was actually better known outside of Utah than inside. I did present at the USTA conference frequently, including this year. Many of the people I worked with as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator had been Presidential Awardees, and when I asked about the program they all said I should apply. But I had to be an official science teacher before that could happen, and this year is the first time since Juab High School. I think I have a strong application – I’ve certainly done more on the national level for teacher professional development that anyone else I know in Utah, but that is just one dimension they look at. I think my content knowledge is excellent, and I’m strong on the other dimensions as well. Anyway, win or lose, I have tried. There have been many times in the past when I have applied for similar programs and thought I could never be selected but was. Maybe this will be one of those times. I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long to find out!