Texas Tech University

Florentia Spires
Florentia Spires

Two doctoral students from the Texas Tech University College of Education'sGlobal Pragmatic Researchers in Science Education (PRiSE) program received national awards for science education.

Florentia Spires, a master educator in the District of Columbia Public Schools, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) for the District of Columbia on July 1. The presidential awards are the nation's highest honors for math and science teachers. One high school science teacher per state is recognized every other year for teaching excellence.

Jacqueline Fernandez-Romero, the founding STEM educator and STEM director for the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy in D.C., was presented the National Science Teachers Association's (NTSA) Distinguished Service to Science Education Award. The award is given to two teachers each year who advance science education and science teaching.

Spires applied for her award in 2012. Part of the application was a recorded lesson, and she chose an engineering design lesson. Her students designed and constructed lunar land rovers using cardboard and other materials, then tested them to see which could hold the heaviest load, move the fastest and hold up in the rugged terrain of a simulated moon.

“When I put the materials out the students looked at me like I was absolutely nuts,” she said. “They couldn't see how this was going to become a vehicle that could actually carry a load and move in different terrains and go over rocks.”

Her students, many of whom were from low-income families, also didn't expect to build a prototype of a NASA vehicle. The project took them outside of their typical education and opened their minds to a world outside of the inner city.

Florentia Spires
Jacqueline Fernandez-Romero

The award also took into account her many years and experiences as a science educator. Spires has been an Einstein Fellow with the National Science Foundation, a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana and a master educator with NASA in addition to years as a teacher. As part of her graduate coursework she created a project teaching students about global precipitation and connected classes in D.C. and Nigeria to do the project together. She also runs science projects at the library for students who aren't in her classes in D.C.

“There's only one presidential secondary school science teacher awardee per state, so  Florentia is in a rarified group of educators,” said Walter Smith, a professor of education who works closely with the Global PRiSE program.

Fernandez-Romero, who was nominated for her award by the director of academics at her charter school, said the recognition was for her work in empowering and furthering science and science education as much as it was her actual science teaching. She has taught science in schools in San Francisco, New York City and D.C. and now is one of the founding educators of a charter school for 16- to 24-year-olds, many of whom are from low-income families and have struggled with education.

She is particularly focused, as is Spires, on helping minorities and women gain a love of STEM.

“Jacqueline has a passion for helping students get a solid educational grounding to launch them into successful adulthood,” Smith said. “She garners every opportunity she can to strengthen her instruction.”

Fernandez-Romero recently returned from a trip to Japan, which Fulbright Japan sponsored, to look at that country's education system and consider ways to apply some of their best practices. Only 14 educators and administrators from throughout the United States were selected to go. In October, she will be on the NASA Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) plane to participate in astronomy research.

“Everything I'm learning I'll bring back to my class,” she said. “It means better instruction, provides me with different alternatives of teaching, enhances my curriculum and makes science even more exciting.”