Two Kentucky teachers won the prestigious 2020 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation’s highest distinction for teaching in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and/or computer science.  

Kaysin Higgins, a mathematics teacher from North Calloway Elementary School (Calloway County), and David “Brian” McDowell, who was a science teacher at Mason County Middle School (Mason County Schools) when he was nominated for the award and now teaches at Highlands Middle School (Fort Thomas Independent), were the only mathematics and science teachers from Kentucky to win the awards.

Higgins and McDowell along with the other recipients were recognized in a PAEMST virtual announcement on Feb. 24.

“I am deeply appreciative of the inspiration that America’s teachers and mentors provide every day to support the next generation of STEM professionals,” President Joe Biden said in a news release announcing the winners. “The dedication these individuals and organizations have demonstrated to prepare students for careers in STEM fields, during what has been a difficult time for teachers, students and families, plays a huge role in American innovation and competitiveness. The work that teachers and mentors do ensures that our nation’s children are able to unlock – for themselves and all of us – a world of possibilities.”

Higgins and McDowell were among 117 teachers, mentors and mentoring organizations from across the nation who were recent recipients of either the PAEMST or Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

“On behalf of all of us at the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education, I would like to extend a big congratulations to Kaysin and Brian. We are proud of you and appreciate the work you do every day,” said Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass.

Kaysin Higgins

Picture of Kentucky teacher Kaysin Higgins.

Kaysin Higgins had been teaching her entire 11-year career at North Elementary, the same school she attended as a child. She has taught 5th grade, schoolwide interventions and 1st grade.

 “The Presidential Award affirms my dedication to lifelong learning and validates the difference I make in my students’ lives,” Higgins said. “Being recognized places me in the company of our nation’s most elite educators and I am forever humbled. I am honored to represent my exceptional colleagues, students and families of North Elementary. This award further inspires me to mentor fellow educators, work together to build a legacy of lifelong learners, and continue my pursuit of excellence in teaching and leading.”

In her classroom, she challenges her students to explore mathematics independently, in small groups and cooperatively to build conceptual understanding. Throughout the pandemic, Higgins took on the role as one of the lead 1st-grade virtual teachers. She helped develop the virtual program for the district, mentored colleagues and executed remote learning for 1st-graders throughout the school year.

Her passion for teaching reaches beyond the classroom. Her leadership among fellow teachers led to a districtwide, numeracy-focused (the ability to understand and work with numbers) professional learning community that includes educators in preschool through 1st grade. She also frequently presents professional development sessions to boost teachers’ confidence and encourage innovative and student-centered instruction.

Higgins served as planning chair for a district-level “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers” professional development event. To develop innovative activities to further communicate the importance and fun of mathematics, she has advocated for field trips for her 1st-grade students that are anchored in mathematics.

She earned a bachelor’s, magna cum laude, in elementary education and a master’s in elementary teacher leader, both from Murray State University. She is a National Board Certified Middle Childhood Generalist and is completing her second master’s from MSU, this time in administration.

David “Brian” McDowell

Picture of Kentucky teacher David “Brian” McDowell.

David “Brian” McDowell said the Presidential Award is “validation of time spent writing grants to purchase resources, developing relationships with community members to make experiences more authentic, learning the skills needed to offer the latest technology and exploring strategies to ensure all students’ needs are met.”

“The work of continuous improvement is tough but infinitely rewarding,” he added. “It is awesome that by doing what you love, you are able to receive recognition that will support your ongoing efforts to do even more.”

McDowell is currently a STEM and science teacher at Highlands Middle School in northern Kentucky. He spent the previous 17 years of his 26-year teaching tenure facilitating STEM and science experiences for Mason County Middle School.

At Mason County Middle, he developed the Teaching in the Margins trail in which students use observation and inference to devise evidence-based explanations for data collected about dinosaur tracks. Margin activities included a dinosaur trackway (a permanent concrete trail of dinosaur footprints that he built at the school), bone assemblage and others, all intended to foster excitement and spontaneity and improvisation among students and to prompt them to take risks. Using the dinosaur trackway as inspiration, he co-authored an article for the National Science Teaching Association’s (NSTA’s) Science Scope called “Making Sense of Dinosaur Tracks.”

McDowell has received the Kentucky Science Teachers Association’s Middle School Teacher of the Year Award, the NSTA’s Inquiry Based Teaching Award and the NSTA’s Robert E. Yager Exemplary Teaching Award. He has been awarded more than $70,000 in grants.

He has a bachelor’s and a master’s in biological education from Miami University of Ohio. He achieved his National Board Certification in Early Adolescence/Science in 2011 and was re-certified in 2020.

Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST)

The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) is the highest recognition in the United States that a kindergarten through 12th grade science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching. The awards program alternates between elementary (kindergarten-6th grade) and secondary (7th-12th grade) teachers, with the 2020 awardees representing an elementary cycle.

Each year, PAEMST applications are reviewed at the state and national levels by prominent mathematicians, scientists, mathematics/science education researchers, district-level personnel and classroom teachers. Nominees then are sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for final selection, with up to 108 teachers recognized each year.

Historically, awardees receive a certificate signed by the president and a trip to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities. They also receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. In 2022, Higgins, McDowell and the other awardees were recognized virtually.

Awardees also join an active network of outstanding educators from throughout the nation. Since 1983, more than 5,200 teachers have been recognized for their contributions in the classroom and to their profession. Awardees reflect the expertise and dedication of the nation’s teaching corps, and they demonstrate the positive impact of excellent teachers on student achievement. In addition to honoring individual achievement, the goal of the awards program is to showcase the highest standards of STEM teaching.