Teresa Gross Receives 2012 Presidential Teaching Award

Teresa Gross, MAE '11, was named as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. This award is conferred annually to outstanding K-12 math and science teachers from across the country. Winners are selected by a panel of distinguished mathematicians, scientists, and educators, after an initial selection process at the state level. Each year, the award alternates between elementary and secondary school teachers; 2012 recipients teach kindergarten through sixth-grade. Winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation, to be used at their discretion. They are also invited to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events. Nominations for 2013 (secondary teachers) are closed, but nominations for 2014 (elementary teachers) are open through April 1.

Teresa Gross Presidential Teaching Award 2012Teresa Gross has been an elementary teacher for 23 years. She has spent the past 12 years teaching fifth grade at Westwood Elementary School in the Greenwood Community School Corporation. Previously, she taught kindergarten.

Teresa inspires a passion for science in her students outside the classroom. She is the Director and instructor for Club Invention, an 8-week afterschool science program for students in grades 1-5. For the past 7 years, she has been serving as a director for Camp Invention, a summer science camp for kindergartners through sixth graders.

In recognition of her efforts to bring authentic science to her students, Teresa has been awarded two Lilly Science Outreach grants. Science in a Bag provides 30 backpacks containing experiments to be conducted at home that rotate through the classroom each week. Authentic Science creates simulations for the classroom, ranging from contaminated water to crime scenes, that students must investigate, explore, and analyze.

Teresa is an IPL Golden Apple Award winner for science, an Indiana Teacher of the Year semifinalist, and a Disney's American Teacher nominee. Teresa has a BA (summa cum laude), in elementary education from Purdue University and an MA in education from Ball State University. She is certified in elementary education and gifted and talented education.

An Interview with Teresa Gross, Presidential Teaching Award Recipient

Q: How/when did you discover your interest in science?

A: As a child, I enjoyed all aspects of school. I knew I wanted to be a schoolteacher from my early years. I spent eleven years teaching kindergarten and through that environment of guided play, I developed a deep philosophy that children learn best when they are engaged and enjoying what they are doing. When I transferred to fifth grade, I didn't see any reason why these students would not benefit from the same type of instruction. Science and math best lend themselves to hands-on, cooperative learning simulations, so that is where I started. The children get excited about math and science; they are always asking me if we are going to do a STEM challenge that day. Every teacher wants to hear the students asking for challenging work.

Q: What is your definition of "authentic science"?

A: Authentic science, to me, is not the prescriptive experiments printed at the end of a science chapter in a textbook. Authentic science is creating a scenario or question for the students to ponder, investigate, analyze, and draw conclusions about. It involves making multiple modifications and completing several tests to find the best possible solution. Authentic science always involves carrying the lesson over to the "big picture." How does this apply to the real world? Students are interacting with physical, life, and earth science simulations. By working in these areas in real-world applications, students may spark an interest that may lead to a long-term career choice. Students see science as a relevant part of their lives, not a distant subject learned from a textbook only to be forgotten at the end of a test.

Q: How did your concept of authentic science develop over the years?

A: I began serving as a director for Camp Invention at my school in 2006. This week long summer science camp includes five STEM modules that involve cooperation, problem solving, and critical thinking. These children, from grades K-6, are able to brainstorm and create some amazing inventions. They are all engaged and excited about learning and experimenting. They aren't afraid to take risks because they know that modification is an essential component to science. This hands-on curriculum engaged students on a different level. I wanted to replicate that excitement for learning into my classroom year-round, so I began developing the STEM challenges and other tools to achieve this goal.

Q: Are the after school/summer activities similar to what you do in the classroom?

A: These are very similar. Children are issued a challenge or a task to complete. They then work in small groups to analyze the task, make a plan, investigate and experiment, test and then modify to improve their product.

Q: Can you give an example of a science lesson/activity that you know is popular with your students? What is it that they like about it?

A: One of the favorite activities every year is the Egg Car Challenge. We spend much of the first semester conducting STEM challenges around Newton’s Laws of Motion, speed, and friction. At the end of the semester, each student creates a car that will carry an egg passenger down a ramp and crash into a wall without breaking the egg. The ramp continually gets steeper making the force on the egg greater. This project is a culmination of what we have worked on all semester. The students write up an explanation defending what materials and design they chose for their car and how those choices apply to the curriculum we have studied. We apply this to the “big picture” and how what we have learned influences the car industry and safety standards for vehicles. I think the students really enjoy the challenge of this task. They also enjoy seeing their cars be successful by making it all the way to the steepest level.

Q: What advice would you give to parents about supporting their child's science education?

A: My biggest piece of advice would be to allow children to explore and make mistakes. Science is about taking risks and knowing that things may not turn out as planned. Some of our greatest inventions were created by accident. When mistakes are made, true learning begins. We need to encourage curiosity in our children; young minds often have the most creative ideas. At Camp Invention, there are many times that I have no idea how to tackle a challenge, but the children never hesitate. They jump right in and often create products well beyond my expectations; they never cease to amaze me.

Q: What advice do you have for your colleagues who are teaching science?

A: I have heard many teachers say they don’t like teaching science because they don’t feel confident in the subject themselves. I teach the gifted and talented cluster for our grade level. I learned a long time ago that there would always be kids in my class who have more background knowledge than me in some areas. I embrace that and allow those students to be center stage. In science, the students take the lead. I am merely a guide and facilitator who provides the means for them to investigate and discover what they are curious about. Science isn’t about having the “right” answers, and I think that can be scary for some. Once that fear is overcome, science can be a fun and educational for both the students and the teacher.