July 2, 2012

Honored teacher says STEM tide is turning

Q&A talks with East Hartford High School's Tyler Hoxley, Presidential Award winner for excellence in science teaching.

Q: You were recently honored by President Barack Obama with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. How did you come to receive this award? What is your background?

A: I began my teaching career 19 years ago at East Hartford High School where I currently teach ninth grade honors biology along with honors anatomy/physiology for upperclassmen. I was nominated by my department head, Melissa Gavarrino, last April. After submitting the application, which consisted of a 15-page, typed reflection of the five dimensions of effective teaching and a video of a classroom lesson, I was notified in September by the CSDE that I was chosen as one of two Connecticut finalists for the science portion of PAEMST. The applications were then sent to a national committee for review and I learned a few weeks ago that I was chosen for the award.

Q: Why go into science teaching? Why not pursue employment in the private sector? What drew you into teaching and what has kept you there?

A: I've always had a passion for science since I was a kid and knew that I'd have some kind of career in the field. I realized during my junior year in college that I wanted to have an interpersonal job in biology and teaching lends itself very nicely in utilizing interactive skills.

Q: What is your take on science education in Connecticut? How about the United States? The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that fewer than one-third of elementary- and high-school students have a solid grasp of science. What does that mean in the real world?

A: Although Connecticut continues to perform above the national public average on the science portion of the NAEP, I recently read that the results from 2011 show that Connecticut is behind 15 other states on this particular assessment. I would be cautious, however, at how all of the different assessment benchmarks are interpreted. They do not always paint an accurate picture of what is happening across different grade bands, subgroups, etc. Connecticut has thousands of dedicated, hard-working, professional educators who tirelessly work with the children of Connecticut.

Q: As a follow up to that question, what are your thoughts on fixing things? You teach in East Hartford, which falls between suburban and urban. How do you motivate your students to get a solid grasp of education? How do you make kids care about science?

A: I'm not too sure that many kids "care" about science, but it is vitally important for them to understanding how science and technology will impact their lives and their children's future. Therefore, it is up to science educators to design lessons and assessments that help students not only build scientific literacy and skills, but also show students how it relates to real-world applications. For example, they should care about a field such as biotechnology which will directly effect their lives. Genetically modified foods, designer babies and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, along with info from the human genome project, will produce social, ethical and legal issues that will have to be addressed by our students. So in the classroom, we use biotechnology to test soy flour for genetic modification and they create persuasive brochures using Publisher to voice their position on designer babies. I think the connections of the science content to how it will shape their future is one way to try and motivate students.

Q: Are there innovations coming in science education that might make U.S. students more adept at science? What do you recommend should happen?

A: Yes, I believe that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will provide opportunities to improve science education in the U.S. To be frank, the latest results from NAEP assessments have not shown the improvements we had hoped for when the National Science Education Standards were created 15 or so years ago. The new NGSS are based upon a publication from the National Research Council titled The Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The main idea of these new standards is for all students, K-12, to actively engage in scientific and engineering practices in order to develop a deep understanding of core ideas and crosscutting concepts. In addition to the traditional life, earth, and physical science core concepts, there is an engineering, technology and applications of science core areA: Also, there is already a Common Core of State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. I think the connections formed between these and the new NGSS will help develop a coherent set of learning expectations for all students K-12. It will take many years to provide professional development to teachers, develop curricular documents and assessments, and prepare students for STEM careers. But the tide is turning and the necessary components are beginning to come together. It is an exciting time to be a science educator.

Q: As part of your award, you receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at your discretion. What are your thoughts? How do you plan to spend the award?

A: Well, I have three children and my oldest child will be attending college in about eight years. I imagine the money will be going back into education in some shape or form.


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