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January 16, 2014 — What started as an effort to name the Wyoming state insect eventually led Laurie Graves to an Ecuadorian rain forest and contributed to her recent selection as one of two Wyoming teachers who received the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest award given to United States’ teachers.
Graves, a fifth-grade teacher at Sheridan County’s Big Horn Elementary School, credits much of her success to her experiences in a research project led by Scott Shaw, a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, who nominated Graves for the award.
She became acquainted with Shaw when one of her students worked with him to get the Sheridan green hairstreak butterfly named the state insect. Shaw was a major player in the process of getting the bill passed. Through that connection, Shaw, in 2010, encouraged Graves to apply for a research trip he led to Ecuador with funding through a Research for Education Teacher (RET) grant.
“The trip to Ecuador was one of the most amazing opportunities that I have ever experienced,” says Graves, who applied for the trip to gain firsthand knowledge of the biodiversity in Ecuador and to be able to experience a different culture. “My hope was to be able to bring my experiences back to my classroom and have more enriched lessons for my students.”
The experience was everything she hoped it would be, and more.
“The immersion of becoming a true learner again, in fields of study not completely familiar to me, really caused me to reevaluate how I presented, assessed and retaught material to my own students,” Graves says, noting that Shaw and UW Botany Professor Greg Brown shared their knowledge with her during the Ecuadorian experience.
The trip’s cultural component was significant, too, as Graves was able to spend time in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
“Comparing small-town Wyoming to this sprawl of vast humanity was almost overwhelming, but gave me so much to bring back and share with my students,” Graves says. “The study of the rural side of Ecuador was equally fascinating, and also provided much to consider and to share with my students.”
Her students have been involved in developing circle plots near and around the school to observe change and growth over time. She contributed to a biodiversity website and participated in teacher workshops at UW, sponsored by the RET grant. Graves’ students were able to participate in Skype sessions with teacher Jen Donovan’s students in New York and with Donovan when she was in Ecuador last spring. They compared their findings from their Wyoming plots with the New York students’ plots.
“I have benefited from my involvement with Dr. Shaw and the biodiversity work in ways that I never dreamed possible,” says Graves, who will travel to Ecuador this spring and hopes to bring back even more experiences for her students. “These experiences have grown me as a teacher and as a person.”
Graves was named the top science teacher from Wyoming; Laramie teacher Kathleen Kniss, a former fourth-grade teacher at Linford School who is a UW doctoral degree candidate and a district trainer for Albany County Schools, was named the top math teacher.
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level. 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 Obama administration.
Laurie Graves conducts research in Ecuador. She received the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest award given to United States’ teachers.