Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) Winners
Read the press release about this year's winners. Congratulations!
EPA Region 2
LaFayette Junior/Senior High School
LaFayette, New York
Mr. Amidon is an 8th and 9th grade teacher at LaFayette Junior and Senior High School in LaFayette, New York. For the last 23 years, he has integrated environmental education across the school’s curriculum and established partnerships with many external organizations that provide his students unique educational experiences.
Building connections with external partners, Mr. Amidon has earned numerous educator certifications from National Geographic, the American Meteorological Association, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Endeavor program, among many others. Based on his experience as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Teacher at Sea, Mr. Amidon designed a suite of lessons around juvenile rockfish which helped his students, living in a small, land-locked community, gain insights into an environmental topic that affects communities outside of their own. Students learned about population sampling and fishing limits and plotted the impacts of commercial fishing using NOAA data. Mr. Amidon has worked diligently to ensure that his lessons are inclusive of all students’ backgrounds, incorporating books that offer Indigenous perspectives on biological concepts and analyzing the importance of local watersheds and lakes for the Onondaga Nation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Amidon participated in the National Geographic Educator-Explorer Exchange which led to engaging activities for students learning in-person and remotely. Mr. Amidon partnered with an Argentinian organization that helps students identify alternatives to single-use plastics. This partnership connected his students in the United States (many studying remotely) with students in Argentina, which vastly improved student engagement. Despite the challenges of remote learning, including students with limited home internet access, Mr. Amidon attained almost full participation from students with each student group creating a solution to a single-use plastic problem.
Mr. Amidon also uses a Climate Model lab which uses gamification to help students understand how climate change impacts their lives. His students have participated in the International Student Carbon Footprint Challenge, an exciting opportunity to calculate their carbon impact and participate in a global social network. Mr. Amidon even involves parents in climate change lessons. For example, when students conducted environmental audits of their own homes as part of the challenge, there were active conversations with parents about how individual actions impact the climate.
Additionally, Mr. Amidon sponsors the school’s environmental club, ECOS, for 7th through 12th graders. The student-led club focuses on increasing membership and fostering leadership skills. Activities include annual Earth Day cleanups, “sustainability stations” where senior high school students lead mini workshops for younger students, and surveys to estimate the school’s paper usage.
Mr. Amidon’s efforts to encourage students to take on sustainability projects has helped foster leadership skills while simultaneously making the school and local community a better place. These inspired students have in turn inspired their family members and the greater school community. Mr. Amidon is a 2016 winner of this award.
EPA Region 3
Ms. Burrell brings nearly 16 years of experience as well as numerous experiential environmental education opportunities to her kindergarteners at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland. Ms. Burrell’s passion for teaching and learning inspires students and staff to be environmental stewards through introducing students to sustainable agriculture through the creation of a school garden, engaging students through weekly Zoom sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic about at home plant growing kits and providing leadership to the Green Team after school club.
Over the past 7 years, Ms. Burrell has been leading students, staff, volunteers, parents, and the community to transform her school’s courtyard garden into a vibrant outdoor classroom. This outdoor space provides a hands-on setting for students to learn about environmentally sustainable and responsible living, healthy eating habits, and how to grow and care for plants. During the harvest season, students and staff enjoy eating the fruits, vegetables, and herbs they cultivated. Over the years, the garden has evolved to include a raised bed and rain barrel and rainwater collection system, shade garden, butterfly garden, vegetable beds, native plants and perennials area, flowering plants, and trees. The garden provides a calm oasis for the diverse student body, including many students newly immigrated to the United States who enjoy meeting in the garden and talking in their shared languages. Each year, Ms. Burrell provides training sessions to her school’s teachers and staff on ways they can engage students to interact with the garden. Using grant funding, Ms. Burrell’s kindergarten students assist the Green Thumb Club to prepare a large pollinator garden area that features native nectar and pollinator plants specifically chosen to appeal to birds, bees, butterflies, moths, and other pollinators.
Ms. Burrell also provides leadership and guidance to her school’s Green Thumb Club. Students in the club meet weekly for six weeks for a lesson, listen to a guest speaker, and complete a hands-on project. Ms. Burrell collaborates with local organizations to bring in guest speakers. Guest speakers regularly include the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recycling and Resource Management Program Specialist, and Montgomery County’s Commercial Food Scraps Recycling Program Manager. During distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Burrell led the transition to a Virtual Green Thumb Club, so students could continue to learn about plants, listen to guest speakers, and connect with their peers and teachers.
Other projects she has facilitated include the building and installation of a bluebird box in the school’s garden. Students check the box in the spring months, observe if there are any eggs, and examine the nest after the birds leave. By observing and learning about the birds, students develop an appreciation of nature and learn about the importance of preserving wildlife habitat. Many students are encouraged to plant their own wildlife gardens and install bird houses and bird feeders at home.
Ms. Burrell’s approach to environmental education provides her students with meaningful experiential learning experiences that encourage her students’ curiosity and inquiry, and foster respect for the environment.
Edison High School
In addition to teaching high school science classes at Edison High School in Alexandria, Virginia, Mr. Kniesly serves as the lead teacher in a multi-year academic STEM program that also fosters an inclusive, hands-on after-school program for youth.
Mr. Kniesly is the lead teacher for the Global STEM Challenges Program (GSCP), a three-year, interdisciplinary, academic program focusing on addressing modern challenges and sustainability. The GSCP combines science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and is designed to encourage students to come up with solutions for the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering. Ninth grade students learn about food production and waste, 10th grade students focus on water quality and accessibility, and 11th grade students focus on energy.
Mr. Kniesly teaches 9th grade students about the food production and waste reduction component of the GSCP. Drawing upon his background in agricultural and environmental education, Mr. Kniesly developed coursework and projects that inspire students to find creative and innovative solutions to problems with local and global relevance. His class is tackling the concept that “waste” is a social construct and in many cases, an underutilized resource. Student projects focus on food deserts and how food production can be used to address food waste, food access, and sustainability. Other projects include how to quickly compost large amounts of school cafeteria food scraps; how composting affects the local watershed and greenhouse emissions; raising colonies of insect larvae that biodegrade plastic waste; raising oyster mushrooms to turn organic material into food and fertilizer; using wastewater streams as a nutrient source for food crops; and developing a zero-impact poultry feed.
In addition to inspiring students during class, Mr. Kniesly also leads the after-school San Clemens Farm 4-H Club, a community club that focuses on agriculture and sustainability. A core tenet of the 4-H Club is to serve their human and ecological communities. Students tend gardens, harvest vegetables and fruits, and collect and wash eggs from a chicken coop. Food they produce is shared with student families and with individuals in their community experiencing homelessness. Several of the student members are English language learners, recent migrants, students with disabilities, and/or LGBTQ+ youth. The San Clemens Farm 4-H Club continues to grow and has become an inclusive space for students where they can learn, collaborate, and share ideas in a judgement-free space.
In 2019, Mr. Kniesly was recognized as Virginia Agriculture Classroom’s Teacher of the Year. Mr. Kniesly’s leadership, guidance, and enthusiasm both in the classroom and in after-school programs helps his students develop an appreciation and passion for integrative solutions to both local and global issues.
EPA Region 4
White Oak High School
Jacksonville, North Carolina
Mr. Dillman is an advocate for science and STEM education who challenges his high school students at White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina to think “outside-the-box” by using hands-on, challenge-based, problem-solving curricula. White Oak High School identified as a Title 1 school, with 30 to 40 percent of the students living in underserved communities. Since 2018, the students and faculty at White Oak High School have faced significant challenges including the demolition of the science wing by Hurricane Florence, followed by remote learning from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Dillman prioritized connecting with his students, many of whom were challenged by social isolation, and adapted his teaching strategies to keep that connection until in-person classes resumed.
An educator for 13 years, Mr. Dillman started a student club, Green Team, in 2008 during his first year as a teacher. Since its inception, the Green Team has been focused on building an environmentally sustainable campus at White Oak High School and promoting sustainability among the greater community. His hands-on approach to environmental education inspires his students to make a positive difference in our natural world.
The first Green Team project enhanced the school’s recycling program. Green Team members were paired with students with special needs to collect content from recycling bins in classrooms. During those initial years, students raised funds to help the school purchase refillable water bottle stations at drinking water fountains; organized and participated in weekend trash pickups at the community beach; and participated in the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. Students also learned how to make fishing line waste containers out of empty tennis ball canisters that were distributed to local fishers to promote proper waste disposal.
Under Mr. Dillman’s sponsorship, the Green Team has also worked hard to make the school grounds more friendly to pollinators. In 2015, students planned and built a pollinator garden, planting more than 25 species of flowers, bushes, and trees. Parents, local Rotarians, and even a battalion of the United States Marine Corps from the nearby Camp Lejeune Marine Base helped plant the trees and plants. To create an apiary, Mr. Dillman and his students consulted with master beekeepers and master gardeners for guidance on layout and suitable vegetation. The apiary has grown from one hive to seven. Mr. Dillman and the students are currently working to become the first public high school certified as a “bee campus.” More than 20 students have successfully completed state certification as beekeepers.
Mr. Dillman’s contributions have led to academic and behavioral benefits, including increasing the number of Advanced Placement science classes to meet the growing student interest. Students in the Green Team have earned several awards, including national awards, for their hard work and environmental leadership. Mr. Dillman has received numerous state awards, including Teacher of the Year for White Oak High School, and most recently, recognition as the 2021 National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding Earth Science Teacher for North Carolina. Many of Mr. Dillman’s students who have since graduated have chosen to enter environmental science fields, which he considers his greatest legacy.
Abbotts Creek Elementary School
Raleigh, North Carolina
Trained as an environmental geologist, Ms. Brinchek began her career as an educator at Abbotts Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina upon its opening in 2015. The elementary school is located adjacent to the former North Wake Landfill which Ms. Brinchek uses as a discussion point when teaching about the environmental impacts of landfills and waste management. Ms. Brinchek’s lessons led to a partnership with the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) to perform a waste analysis in the school cafeteria which then informed a school-wide waste reduction plan.
Ms. Brinchek promotes environmental sustainability awareness through hands-on activities, including a partnership with the North Carolina State University Turtle Rescue Team to bring rehabilitated turtles to the classroom. She has expanded her influence to integrate environmental education with students at all grade levels at the school. Each grade level is assigned the responsibility of a Citizen/Community Science Program. These programs teach the importance of data collection and scientific processes that connect with grade-level science standards. To keep the programs going during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Brinchek scheduled virtual sessions for students to meet with environmental scientists. These virtual discussions were open to all students and increased STEM career awareness despite the remote learning environment.
Ms. Brinchek’s achievements in environmental education at Abbotts Creek Elementary School have improved standardized test scores and improved social interactions in the classroom by connecting students to nature. Ms. Brinchek also develops programs beyond the classroom to educate students’ families and the community on environmental initiatives. In 2021, she was awarded the NC Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers through the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF). This award grant allowed Ms. Brinchek to train other teachers on equity issues in nature and provide experiential professional development for teachers to expand their spheres of influence in their classrooms and student populations. This grant also facilitated the development of the school’s Learning Garden, where compost from the cafeteria food waste diversion program is added and students choose produce to grow and monitor. In Spring 2022, a traveling farmer’s market, partnering with a nearby high school, will bring the produce grown in gardens at both schools to historically disadvantaged student communities.
Ms. Brinchek’s passion and enthusiasm for environmental education has integrated sustainability into Abbotts Creek Elementary School’s culture and improved students’ academic outcomes. She continues to be a leader in the environmental education community by presenting on and hosting webinars for other teachers and participating in community organizations to create local partnerships.
EPA Region 5
Waukegan High School Washington Campus
Ms. Krischke-Grobart is an 11th and 12th grade environmental science teacher at the Waukegan High School Washington Campus in Waukegan, Illinois. Waukegan High School is a Title 1 school in a heavily industrialized town. Identified as an environmental justice community, there are multiple Superfund sites nearby, with sixty-one percent of the students living in underserved communities.
In addition to her classes, Ms. Krischke-Grobart has organized local and national field trips offering her students unique learning opportunities. With Lake Michigan only one mile from the school, Ms. Krischke-Grobart developed the Lake Michigan Literacy Curriculum, in coordination with the Lake Forest Open Lands Association, to teach students about the environmental, economic, and historical significance of the lake. Students take field trips to the lake, use drones and ground imagery to identify areas of erosion, and hear from local experts about lake pollution and loss of biodiversity from human activity. The Lake Michigan Literacy Curriculum has facilitated meaningful conversations in the classroom and has improved student-to-student relationships and test scores compared to students who are in a traditional classroom setting.
By collaborating closely with Trout Unlimited and the Waukegan Park District, students in Ms. Krischke-Grobart’s class advance their understanding of local conservation practices. They monitor and raise rainbow trout eggs, clean the tank, test the water quality, and in the spring, release the trout fry into the local waterways. Ms. Krischke-Grobart is also spearheading the design of an outdoor classroom, which will include a low-profile prairie serving as a native biome to improve campus biodiversity as well as a rain garden, providing a living laboratory to integrate environmental education into the broader school curriculum.
Ms. Krischke-Grobart recruited students to work with local experts, environmental naturalists, and research scientists to develop stewardship projects and travel to Yellowstone National Park in 2022. Under a grant awarded by the Illinois Biodiversity Field Trip, her students have visited a local forest preserve to identify and remove invasive species in coordination with professionals. Ms. Krischke-Grobart also recruits students for the Green Youth Farm which partners with the Chicago Botanical Gardens to provide paid summer internships to students. As founder and sponsor of the school’s Environmental Club, Ms. Krischke-Grobart organizes extracurricular activities for both students and their parents to learn more about local environmental issues, sustainable and socially just environmental practices, and how to take action at the local level.
Hull Prairie Intermediate School
For nearly two decades, Ms. Boros has been a part of the teaching community in northwest Ohio. She is currently a 5th and 6th grade science teacher at Hull Prairie Intermediate School in Perrysburg, Ohio, where she has pioneered Project PRAIRIE.
Project PRAIRIE comprises seven school districts and 21 elementary and middle schools that have installed or are in the process of installing prairies. As a charter member of Project PRAIRIE, Ms. Boros worked with building architects and landscape artists to designate a two-acre parcel on the school property as a native prairie before Hull Prairie Intermediate School was built. The native prairie has become an outdoor living laboratory for students to learn about native plant species and the issue of declining populations of native insects, as well as contribute to a larger body of global research on these topics. Ms. Boros encourages students to take charge of their own learning by gathering data on local species and monitoring local populations through citizen science projects, such as Bumble Bee Watch and Monarch Watch. Students also use the prairie to conduct field-based research utilizing Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) protocols for soil and atmosphere; in spring 2022, students will be presenting their results virtually at the International GLOBE Student Symposium.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were learning from home, Ms. Boros designed a new program to keep students engaged in the data collection process. The Science to Go! Backpack program encouraged students and their parents to collect soil and atmosphere data from their own backyards, which in turn helped them work together to address environmental factors affecting their community. Ms. Boros’ teachings go beyond the science department; language arts teachers have been using the prairies for quiet reading and social studies teachers have been discussing the importance of prairies to Native Americans. In addition, each September, Ms. Boros leads the entire student body and teachers in the BioBlitz when students catalogue all plants and animals in the prairie.
Ms. Boros’ leadership and enthusiasm goes beyond the students at Hull Prairie Intermediate School. Her work with Project PRAIRIE has led to multiple additional prairie installations in neighboring districts in partnership with the Toledo Zoo. In July 2019, Ms. Boros was one of 15 educators chosen to participate in a research project on an EPA research vessel on Lake Erie. She has been recognized locally, regionally, and statewide for her work with the Ohio Department of Education, local universities, and other school districts. Her engagement in these extracurricular activities allows her to bring additional knowledge back to her students, establishing key partnerships that advance the school’s sustainability mission. Ms. Boros has made the prairie an integral part of the Hull Prairie Intermediate School community and her passion has positively influenced students, parents, and teachers alike.
EPA Region 8
Westgate Community School
With more than 6 years of teaching experience, Ms. Dewar brings exciting environmental education opportunities both on and off campus for her 5th and 6th graders at Westgate Community School in Thornton, Colorado.
Each year, Ms. Dewar leads 5th and 6th grade students to a 3-day outdoor education camp where they learn outdoor and nature skills by participating in hands-on activities including safe fire starting, orienteering, outdoor cooking safety, and survival skills. Students also learn about animal tracking, wildlife habitats, Colorado wilderness history, and wildfire impacts on the ecosystem. On campus, Ms. Dewar provides students with interactive opportunities to care for the school’s chickens and goats. The school sells the chicken eggs, teaching the students about supply and demand and helping them to examine how the global economy and the school’s small economy are affected by changes in the natural world. During the warm months, Ms. Dewar’s students maintain the school’s community garden and learn first-hand about Native American farming practices as they put agricultural concepts into practice. Students make connections between how historical environmental practices have affected the current ecosystem health and how current human impact on the environment may impact the Earth in the future.
These experiential educational opportunities, accessible to all students at the school, also support students who benefit from more physical movement and interaction in their school day.
Environmental education is successfully woven into other subjects in Ms. Dewar’s class. During math class, students learn statistics and how to write, evaluate, and interpret algebraic expressions while working on the project, Water Rights 21st Century Math Projects. For this project, Ms. Dewar teaches about international water challenges, including issues with access, collection, and transportation of drinking water. Students analyze water usage and conservation while also learning about algebraic expressions and how their own personal water usage has an impact on the environment.
Ms. Dewar strives to offer her students fun opportunities to connect with the environment and their community. Students eagerly participate in walking field trips to pick up trash and create informational posters for their schoolmates about how to correctly recycle. On a quarterly basis, students examine and sort through their classrooms’ garbage. This data is compared with other classrooms’ data. Armed with this comparison, the students have been educating others in their community about how to improve recycling habits and become more environmentally literate. Ms. Dewar inspires her students, fellow teachers, and administrators alike by creating and sustaining a learning environment that makes a difference for her students and the community at large.
Christina (Chris) Pavlovich
East Side Elementary School
Ms. Pavlovich, a 5th grade teacher at East Side Elementary School in Livingston, Montana, uses experiential learning to connect her students to environmental education lessons. An educator for 14 years, she has guided thousands of elementary students to weave together scientific and cultural knowledge and relate it to place and their own lives through Watershed Warriors.
In 2009, Ms. Pavlovich designed Watershed Warriors, a place-based, interdisciplinary environmental education program based on student scientific practice. Applicable to any watershed in the world, Watershed Warriors educates students about cultural history, modern use and sustainability, and stewardship of watersheds. In Livingston, students are directly impacted by these topics as the community relies on the Yellowstone River which flows through the town, and they live on traditional land of the Apsáalooke people. Weaving in cultural knowledge, Ms. Pavlovich connects the community to science and provides opportunities that help her students understand how sustainability applies to complex environmental systems. All 5th grade students participate in the yearlong Watershed Warrior curriculum. Watershed experts and other local experts from the community as well as Apsáalooke leaders speak to students about different processes of stream restoration projects, giving students the opportunity to engage with place-based professionals and connect real-time science to content they are learning in the classroom.
Ms. Pavlovich’s students also study ecosystems and population stability of species. Students make hypotheses on population instabilities of animal species living in Yellowstone National Park. Their hypotheses evolve as students learn more about how environmental challenges of the local watershed can impact animal populations. This is one example of how Ms. Pavlovich promotes learning of Earth system interactions, making students better stewards of the environment.
Ms. Pavlovich’s work has improved her students’ standardized test scores and increased their extracurricular activities, which is attributable to the emphasis she places on science and evaluating data sets in the Watershed Warriors program. Additionally, her students have chosen to take on environmental projects within the community, engaging in scientific roundtables and submitting calls to action to the local environmental council. Ms. Pavlovich’s students have gone on to study fisheries or other environmental topics in college and credit her lessons to their decision.
Beyond the classroom, Watershed Warrior teachers have partnered with teachers in Mongolia to address Mongolian watershed challenges that fit the cultural and economic landscape of the country. Ms. Pavlovich and her team of Montana teachers support the program, which has expanded to 23 provinces. This partnership has increased watershed advocacy in Mongolia and has allowed Livingston’s East Side School students to engage with international students and discuss watershed health and implications. Ms. Pavlovich empowers teachers within her own state through Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. Her trainees reach teachers K-12 across the state, impacting student experiences and district practices statewide and empowering leaders for the next generation.
In spring 2022, Ms. Pavlovich was honored to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to STEM teachers. She was also a finalist for the 2022 Montana Teacher of the Year Award.
EPA Region 9
Neil Cummins Elementary School
Corte Madera, California
Ms. Swisher, a 2nd grade teacher in Corte Madera, California, integrates sustainability topics into teaching materials and lesson plans for students from kindergarten through 5th grade at the Neil Cummins Elementary School. She has championed the Neil Cummins Hawks Garden project which includes native plant species and food for students to eat and share. Parents are encouraged to participate in garden workdays, extending Ms. Swisher’s teachings on environmentally friendly agriculture practices outside of the school. Given the current drought conditions in California, exposing both children and adults to native species and integrated pest management practices helps them understand how to reduce water consumption and enact better land management practices.
The Hawks Garden has educated more than 600 students about biodiversity and the importance of native insects and plants. With creativity and leadership, Ms. Swisher has brought the garden to life. Ms. Swisher’s stewardship of the Hawks Garden provides hands-on opportunities especially for students who live in apartments who may not have gardens to learn about growing their own food. The school garden is also accessible to students with disabilities. Ensuring that the garden provides opportunities for all students has increased awareness and appreciation for environmental sustainability. Some students participate in extracurricular activities at the Hawks Garden including harvesting produce. The produce is donated to the Ceres Community Project, which provides the food to local people who are food insecure and battling chronic illnesses.
Ms. Swisher’s dedication to environmental sustainability is exemplified by the expansion of the school’s garden to include a new area for additional habitat restoration. Leading the marsh habitat restoration, Ms. Swisher’s efforts widen the impact on the local environment and community, provide experiential opportunities for students and their parents, and create habitat for local, endangered species such as bees and monarch butterflies. In conjunction with the habitat restoration, she teaches both students and their parents about the importance of using natural methods to reduce pests to promote a healthy environment.
Ms. Swisher was recognized by the Marin County Integrated Pest Management Commission for her work in the Hawks Garden and the adjacent restoration area. Ms. Swisher also ensures that her lesson plans are relevant and inclusive for all elementary grade levels and accessible to English Language Learners (ELL), students who are economically challenged, and students with disabilities. Her place-based, seasonally appropriate scavenger hunts have been hugely popular with students and teachers. Ms. Swisher also shares her lesson plans with teachers across the school to integrate into their own classrooms.
Students are encouraged to participate in the school’s Green Team and develop their own ideas to make the school a more sustainable place. Since the curation of the Hawks Garden by Ms. Swisher, student engagement in the Green Team has grown significantly. Students at the Neil Cummins Elementary School understand how the sustainability projects they participate in can have a greater impact not only on their local community, but also the world.
EPA Region 10
Alfonso Gonzalez, Jr.
Chimacum Elementary School
Mr. Gonzalez is a math and science teacher for 6th grade students at Chimacum Elementary School in Chimacum, Washington. He draws upon his 30 years of teaching to implement place-based experiential learning and innovative game-based learning to make learning science and math a fun, challenging, and engaging experience for his students.
One of Mr. Gonzalez’s teaching achievements, the Ocean Guardian School project, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an environmental stewardship project begun in 2000 as a water quality monitoring activity. Funded by a small grant, the project engages students in the creek running by the school in hands-on activities including fish trapping, benthic macroinvertebrate sampling, and water quality testing. During fish trapping, students identify and count the fish that are caught in their traps. The information is collected, and the data are shared with the county’s conservation district tracking database.
Students can access water quality testing kits, water quality testing probes, sensors, and sensor interface devices to computers, tablets, digital microscopes, and 3D printers. Mr. Gonzalez has successfully applied for and received more than 23 grants that have funded equipment, software, and tools necessary to expand and equip the project over time. Students are excited and motivated to learn about the ecosystem they live in; the outdoor classroom makes learning fun and relevant and engages students who sometimes struggle in traditional classroom settings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the project also gave students opportunity to spend time outside in small groups.
Mr. Gonzalez uses innovative teaching methods to make curriculums fun and engaging. He integrates gamification and game-based learning into science class materials, lessons, labs, activities, and projects that are enthusiastically received by his students. Using Classcraft, a Learning Management System, Mr. Gonzalez provides students assignments as quests. The kids love the games—they are fully engaged and look forward to new challenges. In 2021, Mr. Gonzalez led his students to participate in a global UNESCO Minecraft Global Build Challenge focused on sustainability; the team identified an unsustainable challenge within their community, conducted research to learn how to solve the problem sustainably, and built in Minecraft a town showing their solution in action. It was a terrific learning opportunity for the participants.
Mr. Gonzalez shares his creative educational approaches with other STEM educators by presenting at conferences and leading workshops for the Washington Education Association. He teaches other educators how to use technology to engage and enhance student learning and how to incorporate game-based learning to motivate and make learning fun.
2022 PIAEE Honorable Mentions
Hunter Huss High School
Gastonia, North Carolina
Ms. Ellis teaches science at Hunter Huss High School in Gastonia, North Carolina. Embarking upon her career 20 years ago, Ms. Ellis chose to teach in high-needs, low-income communities, believing that she could be a role model for students. Over the last 20 years, she has effectively engaged with elementary, middle, and high school students in Title 1 schools to enhance their science skills, improve their communities, and become productive world citizens.
One of Ms. Ellis’s key lessons revolves around water scarcity. Starting with the basics of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, she teaches students how global and cultural issues affect water scarcity. Ms. Ellis provides examples of national and international water scarcity challenges to help students understand the issues that affect their country and global community. Her students, many of whom were unaware of water scarcity issues locally and nationally, engaged in spirited discussions about the role of socioeconomic status and race in water scarcity. This year, she also incorporated social justice into her lesson plans.
To bring the topic closer to home, Ms. Ellis invited speakers from the community to discuss water scarcity issues and assigned students to create solutions. Students enthusiastically chose to tackle the contamination of a local river basin with coal ash from an energy company. Working together, the students determined how to raise community awareness and potential mitigation actions the energy company could take. During their research, students learned that a more affluent community affected by the coal ash contamination received a substantial settlement, while members of a low socioeconomic community received minimal or no settlements for damage to their land and wells. Motivated to act, the students designed brochures and flyers to share information about the coal ash contamination. Being able to create solutions for local problems has dramatically improved engagement across Ms. Ellis’ classes. Her students have a sense of purpose and are empowered to take action while also improving their science skills.
Previously as an elementary teacher, Ms. Ellis became aware of a deficit in science learning opportunities. Ms. Ellis established the 5th Grade Science Celebration to improve equity districtwide among students, many from underrepresented groups, and to close the opportunity gap for primary science students. Funded by a grant, the celebration brings together 5th grade and high school students. The 5th graders visit the high school to view tri-fold boards created by the older students and participate in hands-on activities. This event provides mentoring and reciprocal engagement for both the 5th graders and the high school students. It also strengthens the STEM pipeline by providing the older students an opportunity to be role models for younger students. Additionally, the event provides students equitable access to meaningful and significant learning opportunities. Ms. Ellis consistently works to create vertical learning opportunities that engage students across the school district.
Ms. Ellis’ engaging efforts and connection with her students has not gone unnoticed. She has been commissioned to create lessons that integrate science and social justice and was selected to participate in the North Carolina Kenan Fellowship program. Ms. Ellis also created the STEM Educators for Equity and Diversity Fellowship to assist formal and informal educators in developing and implementing curriculum that focused on culturally relevant practices; the fellowship was funded by a non-profit organization.
Chief Leschi Schools
As a high school teacher at Chief Leschi Schools with more than 5 years of experience, Ms. Mitchell is the creator of the school’s Natural Resources Career and Technical Education (CTE) Pathway. As part of the CTE program, Ms. Mitchell developed three innovative science courses: Natural Resources and Ecology, Natural Resources and Conservation, and Environmental Science. Each culturally relevant course incorporates ecology and conservation and Native American perspectives while also emphasizing Puyallup Tribal salmon and shellfish programs.
Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup, Washington is a State Tribal Education Compact School run by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. The student body is 66 percent Puyallup Tribal members and 98 percent Native American. Many students will be first-generation high school graduates. Ms. Mitchell designed the CTE Pathway courses in response to the community’s request for a student program designed to prepare them for leadership roles within local tribal businesses. Participating students gain lab science skills while also learning about the impact of dams on salmon and the environment, renewable energy, the current and historical importance of salmon, and environmental protection.
In her first year leading the program, Ms. Mitchell began a multi-year project to restore the Lake Leschi wetlands located on the school’s campus. Under her leadership, students identify and dig out invasive species and replace them with native vegetation. Restoration activities also include monitoring water quality and vegetation growth. Students love this hands-on outdoor classroom and enjoy checking on the vegetation they planted. In partnership with the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries, Ms. Mitchell teaches students how to support native salmon by assisting with the spawning process, both at the local salmon hatchery and by managing an on-campus hatchery. The students also learn about future careers in science and natural resources fields.
Building on the foundational science skills achieved in the first two courses, Ms. Mitchell added the new Environmental Science class in fall 2021. In this class, students participate in the Personal Energy Consumption Lab and Alternative Energy Solution Lab and are required to research and write a report on the actions of another nation and the resulting positive or negative impacts on the global environment, create a brochure detailing environmental impacts to the local salmon population, and design a project on land use planning and treaty rights.
Ms. Mitchell is locally recognized as a leader by ensuring that the Natural Resources courses are culturally relevant for the students and community. By successfully establishing connections within the larger community, Ms. Mitchell has fostered increased support for the program. As a result of Ms. Mitchell’s efforts and engaging classes and activities, her students are more interested in protecting the lands in their community and making connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they see in the real world. Every day, she inspires the next generation of Indigenous youth to become scientists.