SUNY Plattsburgh Biology Professor, Alumnus Both Recognized by White House

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President Obama and the winners of the teaching award. Brown is right of center back row, five in from the right. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

PLATTSBURGH, NY (01/07/2010)(readMedia)-- SUNY Plattsburgh was represented twice yesterday at presidential ceremonies recognizing teachers and mentors who make an impact on students in the fields of math, science and engineering.

Dr. Nancy Elwess, a biology professor, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Meanwhile, Jim Brown, an alumnus of the college's teacher education program, now a sixth-grade teacher at Sand Creek Middle School in Colonie, N.Y., was honored with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The two were among a group of about 100 teachers from across the country to receive these honors this year. While in Washington, D.C., their itineraries included meetings with President Obama, the director of the National Science Foundation, the secretary of education and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

At the ceremony, President Barack Obama credited the award winners with doing more than just training a new generation of workers. He told them that a good education is about instilling "in a young person a love of learning and a sense of possibility in their own lives, an understanding of the world around them that will serve them no matter what they do. That's what we have to do as a nation. That's what all of you do every day. And that's what, at root, will lead to greater opportunities and brighter horizons for the next generation and for generations to come."

The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring is designed to recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering who belong to minorities that are underrepresented in those fields. The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to the best pre-college-level science and math teachers from across the country. Each year this award alternates, going either to science and math teachers in grades K through 6 (as it is this year) or to those teaching in grades 7 through 12.

Dr. Nancy Elwess

"To me, the importance of teaching is getting students from point A to point B – to try to get them where they want to go," said Elwess of her teaching. "So I try to share with my students the real experience of doing research – from the previous week that I've done in the lab to how does this relate to what they've done in the classroom."

In doing so, Elwess has become known for her work with undergraduate students, teaching them to conduct DNA research, according to Dr. John Ettling, SUNY Plattsburgh president.

"Nearly 100 of her students have given presentations at national and international conferences, and many have won top awards," said Ettling. "Scientists and faculty from other institutions are amazed at the high-level, quality work these undergraduates are doing."

Through her guidance, Elwess' students have worked to unlock mysteries of the past and present, analyzing DNA from the skeletons of the ancient Maya, searching for the migration routes of Native American tribes, and uncovering connections between behavior and DNA.

Many of Elwess' former students have gone on to pursue higher degrees in the field, being accepted into schools like SUNY Upstate Medical, the University of Miami and Brown University. Others have finished their degrees and now hold positions at Yale and the University of Oregon to name a few.

"Science is fun, and that is sometimes lost in all the jargon and details unless you have an exceptional teacher like Nancy Elwess," said Dr. Kathy Lavoie, the college's dean of arts and sciences.

Jim Brown

For Brown, who earned his master's in teaching from SUNY Plattsburgh, the profession is all about helping students find those "aha" moments.

For instance, at one point in his career, he and his fellow teachers discovered that their students were getting questions about pi wrong on their standardized tests.

"We were looking at this saying, 'Wow, we taught this millions of times. How could they possibly get this wrong?'" said Brown.

As a result, he started to set his lessons up so that his students would discover the concept behind pi themselves. He gave them bicycle wheels of different sizes and had them measure both the circumference and the diameter. Then, they entered the numbers into a spreadsheet. The last column on the spreadsheet compared the ratio between the diameters and the circumference.

"It wasn't labeled," he said. "And I didn't tell them what it was, but I knew it would happen eventually – and eventually it did. Somebody said, 'Hey, all of the numbers are three point something.' That was an 'aha' moment, and I stopped and said, 'Okay, let's talk about that.'"

Brown credits his experience at SUNY Plattsburgh for changing the way he understood and now teaches the subject. Instead of just having Brown teach formulas, one of his professors taught him to use tools or manipulatives to explain the concepts behind mathematical equations. This is something that isn't generally done with students beyond the primary grades but something that his professor believed was important.

To teach the importance of these tools, the professor asked his students to solve the Pythagorean Theorem using squares. Being forced to do so allowed Brown to understand the concepts behind the theorem in a way that he never had before.

"Until I went to learn about teaching math, I couldn't explain the concept to anybody," said Brown, who now makes a point of using such manipulatives whenever possible.

Brown also makes a point of saying "yes" to his students whenever possible.

"A lot of times kids are told 'no,' and a lot of times 'no' does not mean 'No, you can't do it,' but 'No, from an adult's perspective, that's not practical. Don't waste your time,'" said Brown. "But I think a lot of times that's where the learning takes place."

This sort of work has led Brown's students to embark on a number of successful projects, including building a soap box derby car that made it to a national competition; writing and receiving a grant for the school to install electronic handless water faucets to prevent students from wasting water; and starting bicycle recycling programs.

"Jim is a consummate professional," said David Perry, Sand Creek Middle School principal. "Someone who you would want teaching your own children. He comes to school with an energy and passion every day and instills it in his students and the other professionals in the building. It is infectious. As they see Jim is doing something, his colleagues are supportive and want to try those things in their classroom as well."

In this way, said Perry, Brown's work does not just impact his own students, but all of the students who attend the school.