By Matthew Tungate
Joshua Underwood’s physical science classroom at Deming High School (Robertson County) looks more like the 12-year veteran teacher is starting a junkyard than teaching astronomy or physics thanks to all the broken VCRs, hair dryers and other electronics.
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” Underwood said, who has helped students create hovercrafts out of old hairdryer motors.
With school budgets tight, he looks at what people are throwing out, “because you don’t have to have a large budget to have the kids doing science and doing these activities that will get them excited about doing science.”
Higdon’s teaching efforts lead him to be selected as one of two Kentucky teachers to receive the prestigious 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this year.
Andrea Underwood, an 8th-grade mathematics and Algebra I teacher at East Oldham Middle School (Oldham County), also received the award.
All of the chosen educators – 97 in all – received their awards in Washington, D.C., in June.
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. A panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators selected the winners following an initial selection process done at the state level. Each year the award alternates between teachers teaching kindergarten through 6th grade and those teaching 7th through 12th grades.
Winners of this presidential honor receive $10,000 awards from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. While in Washington, D.C., winners visited the White House, where they met with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime educator, and had meetings with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and National Science Foundation Deputy Director Cora B. Marrett.
Both Kentucky teachers’ passions for their chosen content areas began at an early age.
Underwood recalls enjoying tinkering with mechanical objects as a child. He disassembled toy trucks and audio speakers while in elementary and middle school. He blames – and credits – good elementary school teachers who liked doing experiments.
“I think that’s a common story for science teachers. They had a lot of broken stuff around the house that their parents weren’t real happy about, but it paid off,” Underwood said.
Higdon also found her career calling closer to home. Her mother is a retired teacher and administrator.
“She has served as a role mode and inspiration my entire life,” Higdon said.
She was hooked on the profession after she took a summer teacher’s aide job following her sophomore year at the University of Kentucky. Two of her students had not had much success in mathematics, she said.
“My mission was to help these young men respect themselves and succeed,” Higdon said.
Ultimately, they earned their 7th-grade mathematics credits, and Higdon said she learned a lot about respect and motivation on the job.
“I chose math because I thought I could help all students understand mathematics,” she said. “Math was not always an easy subject to me. After I made sense of mathematics, I wanted to share that with students. The look on students’ faces when a problem finally makes sense is priceless.”
Higdon was nominated for the award by former colleague Jennifer Crase, who won the 2009 Presidential Award for Mathematics Teaching.
“I went through the process because she encouraged me and strongly recommended the experience in D.C.,” Higdon said. “She was right. The incredible networking experience I had with 97 magnificent, passionate educators was amazing.”
Higdon said she wants to guide her students to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers and effective communicators.
“The honor of the Presidential Award further strengthens my confidence to continue helping students reach their full potential and result in a brighter future for our country,” she said.
Underwood said he was nominated by his wife, who teaches elementary school science at Deming and was a state finalist for the presidential award last year.
Underwood, a National Board Certified Teacher, said the application is pretty intensive and requires applicants to analyze their teaching.
“I am the only high school physical sciences teacher in my district. Because of this, I often worry about my methods of instruction and if I am presenting material in the most student-friendly manner,” he said. “Winning the Presidential Award, an award based on a critical analysis of my teaching and teaching philosophy, has confirmed that I am on the right track in how I conduct my lessons. Knowing this, I now can push myself even harder down this path to becoming the best teacher that I can be.”
Underwood, a former president of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association, said he would encourage other teachers to become as active as they can in content organizations.
“I really attribute a lot of what I’ve done and a lot of success I’ve had to just listening and having that chance to network with other teachers,” he said. “Everybody has something to share, but we all have something to learn, too.”
Higdon agreed, saying she is fortunate to have such a collaborative relationship with her colleagues. She mentioned one in particular: literacy coach Candy Thomas.
“Our reflective conversations encourage me to continue learning to provide better learning opportunities for my students,” she said.
Higdon said her teaching strength is probably her ability to talk with students, ask questions to measure their understandings and to adjust instruction.
“I rarely give an answer,” she said. “Students learn far more when I answer their question with a question.”
Underwood said he got into science because of his curiosity about how things work. He’d like to think his students are curious, too, so he tries to make sure his teaching has relevance.
“Instead of just talking about some abstract concept, if you can relate it to something they know and something they might already be wondering about, it makes the job a whole lot easier,” Underwood said.
Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching
Andrea Higdon, email@example.com, (502) 222-8480
Josh Underwood, firstname.lastname@example.org, (606) 724-5421