Two teachers from the Triangle were selected to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching from President Barack Obama, the White House announced Monday.
Justin Osterstrom of Martin Gifted and Talented Magnet Middle School in Raleigh and Karen Newman of Durham Academy were among 213 recipients of the award, which honors K-12 science and math teachers from each state. Two other North Carolina teachers – Kayonna Pitchford of Stoney Point Elementary School in Fayetteville and Lauren Baucom of Forest Hills High School in Union County – were also honored.
Winners are selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators after an initial state-level selection process. Each winner receives $10,000 from the National Science Foundation to use at their discretion, according to the White House. Teachers are invited to an awards ceremony, as well as other events and visits with members of the administration.
Newman said she was “very excited” when she learned about the award.
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“I couldn’t stop looking at the letter and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I won. I won,’ ” she said. “It was a very good day.”
Newman, 43, is starting her 17th year teaching at Durham Academy, a private school. She teaches chemistry, usually the honors and advanced placement classes, she said.
“I am not a stand-in-front-of-the-classroom kind of teacher,” Newman said. “I’m all over the place. I am kind of asking questions all the time and working with the kids, and having them really construct a lot of their own knowledge.”
Newman’s teaching philosophy is to find what students are interested in and then pull out the content from their interests, she said.
“Kind of build on what they already like in order for them to enjoy science,” said Newman, who has a Master of Science in oceanography from Florida State University, and a master’s in science education from N.C. State University.
Osterstrom, 35, said the award was “humbling.”
“It’s a big deal when you’re rewarded for doing the right thing as an educator,” he said.
Osterstrom has taught sixth grade science at Martin Middle School for the past five years, after teaching fourth and fifth grade science and K-5 STEM classes at A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary. His approach to teaching is characterized by a hands-on mentality, which is how he learned best as a child.
“I’ve learned that my role is to be a facilitator and answer questions,” Osterstrom said. “Kids learn from each other and for themselves.”
Martin principal Lacey Peckham said Osterstrom is innovative.
“He’s always looking for new ways to interest kids in learning,” Peckham said. “I love visiting his classroom because the students are always very engaged.”
Osterstrom often tweets pictures of science experiments and students’ projects from his Twitter account, both to help keep parents involved and as an incentive for students. Many of his students use Twitter and are excited to see their work featured on social media.
Osterstrom grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia with a degree in elementary education in 2004. There were few male elementary education majors, but that didn’t deter him.
“I knew I could make an impact on elementary school students,” he said.
After receiving an early contract from Wake County at a job fair in Buffalo that year, Osterstrom flew to Raleigh, where he was interviewed by Muriel Summers, the principal at A.B. Combs.
“I knew from the moment I met him that he was a teacher I wanted to hire,” Summers said. “He makes learning come alive. I’m not surprised by this at all.”
Traditional calendar students in Wake County return to class on Monday.
“I’m excited to wake up in the morning,” Osterstrom said. “I’m glad summer break is over. It was nice, but I’m ready to get back to teaching.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler