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West Valley City Journal

Finalists for Presidential Award Make Subjects Engaging

Oct 07, 2016 02:14PM ● By Travis Barton

Jennifer Bodell was named a finalist for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. This is the second time Bodell was nominated. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Neil Armstrong achieved excellence by completing the first mission to the moon. Now, teachers at his namesake’s academy in West Valley City are achieving excellence too, but here on earth. 

Jennifer Bodell and Julie Christensen were named state finalists for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). While Bodell is now an instructional coach at West Lake STEM Jr. High, both were teachers at Neil Armstrong Academy last year. 

“It’s certainly well-deserved. [They’ve] worked very hard to become the teachers [they] are today, it’s a good recognition of all of their efforts over that time,” Matt Goebel, principal at Neil Armstrong academy said.

A national panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators recommend up to 108 teachers to receive the presidential award. The panel will then review the finalists’ applications and select one math teacher and one science teacher from each state. 

In order to be named a finalist, the teachers had to be first nominated then undergo an extensive application process that involved a video of them teaching, letters of recommendation and a five-part essay. 

The grueling process afforded each teacher the chance to reflect on their teaching ability. Bodell said it’s a great reminder that if you’re not enhancing your abilities than those abilities can disappear. 

“There is always room to grow,” Bodell, a teacher for 20 years, said. “You can always improve your teaching and there are always new things to try. If you stay the same, you lose it.” 

“[The application] took a lot of time and effort and reflection on my teaching so I was excited to grow as a teacher from that but then to actually become a finalist, it was exciting,” Christensen said. 

Both teachers said they found out via email and were thrilled to be named finalists. Christensen said she didn’t have high hopes. 

“It was one of those I submitted hoping, but not really expecting,” Christensen said. 

Awardees will receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the award ceremonies. 

Finding a way to keep a subject like math engaging for all students can be a challenge. For Christensen, a teacher for 11 years, she said her enthusiasm for the subject is key. 

“My attitude shows [my students] how much I love math and once they come into my class and see that it can be hands-on then it can start to change their attitude,” Christensen said. 

Bodell demonstrated a very hands-on approach with some of her teaching methods. When teaching the kids about decimals, she uses a stock market simulation where the kids receive $1,000 to put on real stocks and then every day they do the math to find out whether they earned or lost money. 

“It’s just trying to connect it to the real world that we use decimals, we use it with money all the time,” Bodell said. “They don’t want to work in a math book or a science book. They’re investigating and coming up with their own conclusions, their own ‘aha’ moment…I let them find their own [‘aha’ moment].” 

Bodell also uses college football teams for the kids to make graphs out of the players’ weight or understand fractions and statistics with the teams’ wins and losses. 

“Just try and make it fun for them and they usually start to see the value in it and they see that it is fun,” Christensen said. 

Goebel said Christensen understands both math and children, which makes her such an effective teacher. 

“She unites the two in a beautiful way,” Goebel said. 

Christensen taught at Gourley Elementary before coming to Neil Armstrong Academy and throughout her teaching experience she said she’s learned how important mistakes are in the learning process. It’s a philosophy that’s been compounded even more at Neil Armstrong Academy. 

“[Mistakes] happen every day in the classroom. As teachers we do that, as learners we do that and [we want] to make that kind of environment where our kids are willing to take a chance and try even if it’s not going to work to see how we can improve the fails and try to make it successful,” Christensen said. 

As an instructional coach, Bodell is a support system for teachers by modeling lesson plans and giving feedback on their teaching. Along with teaching kids, she helps teachers learn how to teach. This is her first year at West Lake STEM Jr. High as an instructional coach.

Bodell said connecting with a student is possibly the most important thing a teacher can do. “A teacher can have all the content knowledge in the world, they can know everything about math or science, [but] if they can’t make that connection, the kids don’t see the value in knowing that information,” Bodell said. 

Both finalists share a love for working with children that has allowed them to teach effectively thereby earning national recognition. 

“I love seeing the student’s growth, in both their academics and their self-esteem. Where they come in and feel like they can’t do it and then realize that they can,” Christensen said. 

“[Kids] are sponges,” Bodell said. “They want to be taught new things in a fun and exciting way and that’s why I love to teach.”