Published : Thursday, November 19, 2015 | 12:37 PM
Robert Fefferman, a distinguished professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago, has always believed math and science teachers have a unique opportunity to bring their subjects to life for students not only in the classroom, but later on in their lives and careers.
In Pasadena, one philanthropist and John Muir High School alum inspired by Fefferman’s vision searched for a way to recognize public school educators who use innovative thinking to help math and science students accelerate their learning.
With some planning help from the Pasadena Community Foundation, the anonymous local donor created the Fefferman Award for Excellence in Math and Science Education, a prize given Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) instructors who teach in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
The prize demonstrates Pasadena Unified’s unique ability to leverage partnerships with local organizations and philanthropists to help students gain a competitive edge as they prepare for careers in the 21st century marketplace.
The $50,000 award allows for an unrestricted $25,000 prize for the winning applicant, as well as $15,000 to be spent on the teacher’s home campus. Additionally, the award provides for two $5,000 scholarships for students at that school who’ve shown outstanding academic performance in math or science.
“The main goal is to inspire students to excel in math and science education beyond high school,” says Laura Pagano, the project manager who helped organize last year’s inaugural prize and served on the selection committee tasked with picking a winner. “We’re really looking for teachers who inspire students to see math and science as more than just hurdles you need to pass to get a diploma.”
Last spring, after narrowing down applicants to five finalists, the committee chose Marshall Fundamental High School math teacher Lewis Watson as the Fefferman Award’s first recipient. Watson, who teaches Math I primarily for freshman students, was recognized for his use of automated learning systems that individualize math instruction so kids can learn and grow at their own levels of understanding.
In-class learning systems help diagnose a student’s skill level and targets lessons that adapt and respond as that student masters new concepts. The idea is to reach kids where they’re at and help move them forward in ways that are meaningful and understandable to them, Watson explained.
“Math is the only subject that requires you to use what you learned in previous years, and as soon as you fall behind, you’re lost,” the teacher said. “Now we have the tools to change that. We can go back to the last time were good at math…catch you up and get you going again. We can bring you back to grade level and beyond—that’s exciting.”
Shocked to learn he had won PUSD’s first-ever Fefferman Award, Watson worked with the selection committee and his Marshall colleagues to identify two students worthy of its two $5,000 college scholarships. Consequently, graduating senior Krikor Ailanjian and Caolan John were selected for the honor.
With the $15,000 school grant, Watson was able to gift several pieces of needed equipment to the Marshall campus, including a document projector, graphing calculators for advanced math students and tools that let science students capture data and render graphic displays for cross-curricular projects.
With his personal share of the prize, Watson purchased timing equipment for the school’s cross country team, which he helps coach, and set aside some funds for a personal scholarship for son Ryan, who graduated from PUSD last year and now studies at UCLA.
Watson said the experience gave a boost to the entire school campus, especially the students and faculty members.
“The process was rewarding,” he added. “It’s validating that other people are seeing the value of the way we teach math.”
Jennifer DeVoll, executive director of the Pasadena Community Foundation, said her organization helps donors like the anonymous Muir graduate turn their philanthropic goals into reality by administering the logistics of the project, such as creation of the selection committee.
Another vital role of the Foundation is to help guide approximately $25 million in discretionary funding annually to agencies such as Pasadena Unified, which promote advancement in the organization’s six areas of interest, including education, arts and culture, environment and youth.
“In our discretionary grant-making we have a long and strong relationship with PUSD,” DeVoll said, adding that the Pasadena Community Foundation almost exclusively dedicates its education funding to the city’s public schools.
Pasadena Unified Superintendent Brian McDonald, Ed.D., said he hoped to continue to build on collaborations that highlight and encourage excellence in the classroom.
“The Pasadena Unified School District boasts some of the best trained and dedicated group of teachers I have ever worked with over my 20 plus year career,” McDonald said. “I am grateful to the Pasadena Community Foundation and the anonymous donor for creating this award to recognize our excellent teachers—as a former mathematics teacher, it gives me joy to see math and science teachers recognized in this way.”
The annual Fefferman Award is offered exclusively for Pasadena Unified math and science teachers. Applications for the second annual Dr. Robert Fefferman Award for Excellence in Math and Science Education are accepted from Nov. 23 through Jan. 8, 2016. For more information, visit FeffermanAward.org.
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