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.