CUSHING, Maine — Beth Heidemann believes strongly that students learn best when they are working on projects that instill passion.
Heidemann has practiced teaching that way to kindergarten students for 21 years at the Cushing Community School. And, she said, the results speak for themselves.
The Cushing teacher was recognized nationally this week for her excellence in teaching science by being one of 102 teachers nationwide to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science.
She will travel to Washington, D.C., later this school year to receive the award.
RSU 13 Superintendent Lew Collins praised Heidemann.
“This is amazing and wonderful news and my heartfelt congratulations to Beth,” Collins said. “The Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching is the ultimate accolade in our profession. I’ve seen Beth in action in her classroom and she is indeed a very talented and gifted individual. The Cushing and entire RSU 13 community are uplifted by this recognition and grateful to her and to all of our teachers and staff who strive for excellence,” the superintendent said.
RSU 13 Board Vice Chairman Loren Andrews said his family was remarkably fortunate because Heidemann taught both of his children and his mother was a volunteer in her classroom for 15 years.
“I just can’t think of a better award for this remarkably hard-working and talented individual,” Andrews said.
Heidemann comes from a long line of teachers. She graduated from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where she earned a degree in human ecology.
Her first job out of college was as a nanny, caring for two children of a teacher in Cushing. She then obtained a job teaching summer school and two of the students were children of the superintendent for the school district that includes Cushing.
When a long-term substitute teaching position for kindergarten at Cushing Community School became available, she accepted. When the teacher who was out on maternity leave did not return, Heidemann was hired for the teaching post.
As part of her hands-on learning focus, Heidemann takes students out on a half-mile nature trail that abuts the school for real-life observations.
What she considers to be one of the most successful projects is one she has done for many years called “take-it-apart.”
“We live in a technological environment. It’s important for children to explore technology in different ways,” she said.
Take-it-apart literally means taking devices apart. One time she brought in a typewriter for the children to observe, talk about and then disassemble. After they ask their questions, she hands out screwdrivers and safety goggles.
“It was also like an archaeological expedition. Some student thought it was a cash register,” the veteran teacher said.
Last year’s class worked with the Cushing Recycling Committee. The students worked on producing a public service announcement to promote recycling.
The use of hands-on projects in which students learn by doing also has benefits in their ability to read and write, she said.
She said research from her classes has shown that many of the children come in with some of the lowest scores but leave with consistently higher performance in literacy.
While conducting science projects, the students write in personal science journals.
“The ripple effects are profound,” Heidemann said.
Heidemann said she is also not afraid to try a project that does not succeed. Taking risks is important in education, she said, by teaching children to try things and be life-long learners.
Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science winners are selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process at the state level. Each year the award alternates between educators teaching kindergarten through sixth grade and those teaching seventh through 12th grades. The 2012 awardees named Thursday teach kindergarten through sixth grade.
Winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. They also are invited to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress and the administration.
“These teachers are inspiring today’s young students to become the next generation of American scientists, mathematicians and innovators,” President Barack Obama said in a news release. “Through their passion and dedication, and by sharing their excitement about science, technology, engineering, and math, they are helping us build a promising future for all our children.”
The news release from the White House stated that excellent math and science teachers, exemplified by these awardees, are critical to getting more students engaged in science, technology, engineering and math.