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Durham Academy chemistry teacher Kari Newman has been named a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) — the highest commendation bestowed by the United States government on K-12 science teachers — and was recognized in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8.
Newman is among just 105 teachers of students in grades 7 to 12 nationwide to earn the honor. She is one of only two North Carolina teachers in the grades 7-12 award cohort to earn the distinction. Newman and her colleagues were joined in the nation’s capital by the 108 awardees recognized in kindergarten through grade 6.
“I feel very proud and at the same time very thankful,” Newman said of the honor. “I don't think I’d be where I am without the support of the faculty at Durham Academy and the mentors that I’ve had over the years teaching me different techniques that I’ve pulled into my classroom. It feels really good.”
Award winners — selected from a pool of state finalists by a National Science Foundation-appointed panel of prominent mathematicians, scientists and educators — receive a $10,000 award from NSF to be used at their discretion, as well as professional development activities and opportunities to visit with members of the president’s administration. Presidential awardees will also received a certificate signed by President Barack Obama at the Sept. 8 ceremony.
"The recipients of this award are integral to ensuring our students are equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to our nation’s success,” Obama said in a White House press release. “As the United States continues to lead the way in the innovation that is shaping our future, these excellent teachers are preparing students from all corners of the country with the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills that help keep us on the cutting edge.”
The 2016-2017 school year marks Newman’s 17th year of teaching chemistry at Durham Academy. She is head coach of the school’s Science Olympiad team and has served as a lead class advisor, a mentor to new faculty and a partner to seasoned teachers in the school’s Professional Growth Program.
Newman — who holds a B.S. in chemistry from Centre College, an M.S. in oceanography from Florida State University and an M.Ed. in science education from N.C. State University — began her career as an environmental educator in summer camps and outdoor education programs. She began teaching in a traditional classroom setting at Chatham Hall, a girls boarding school in Virginia, where she started the school’s AP program.
“Since she arrived here in 2000, Kari has been an exceptionally strong teacher — passionate about chemistry and even more passionate about helping every student unravel its mysteries,” said Durham Academy Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner. “What makes her truly remarkable, however, is her insatiable hunger to improve her instruction. She seems always to be tinkering, experimenting, learning and growing as a teacher and mentor of young scientists. So many DA alumni will applaud to see this news — grateful for Kari's example of relentless striving to learn.”
Indeed, Newman said she’s been delightfully overwhelmed by the response she experienced from students, alumni, parents and others in the community. At the conclusion of the Upper School’s first-day-of-school convocation, Upper School Director Lanis Wilson announced the news to the student body, who gave the chemistry teacher — waving from the balcony of Kenan Auditorium, where she sat with her ninth-grade advisory — a rousing standing ovation. Many of her current students emailed her right away after the news was made public on Monday.
“I had one [current student] who emailed me Monday and in all-caps said, ‘I JUST HEARD YOUR NAME ON THE RADIO!’ That was cool,” Newman said. “Walking through the Learning Commons, I feel a little like a celebrity. Lots of high-fives and hugs and handshakes and personal conversations — people making the time to come and ask about the award and the process.”
Among the many students on whom Newman has left an impression is Class of 2016 graduate Matthew Mosca, who took Newman’s Honors Chemistry and AP Chemistry courses as a DA student. Mosca said Newman is relentless in her quest to help her students understand what can be complex concepts — with a straightforward teaching style and a willingness to provide multiple approaches, analogies and examples if students are struggling to comprehend an idea.
“She is enthusiastic about the material and is always willing to answer questions about chemistry that come purely from curiosity, even if they are not topics we need to cover in the class,” Mosca said. “This part of her teaching is important to me because I am especially interested in science, and I often want to dig a little deeper than the topics we need to cover for the AP exam.”
Dr. Michael Therien — a Duke University chemistry professor and father of DA alumnus Aaron '15 and senior Aidan, both of whom Newman has taught — nominated her for the honor. In his nomination letter, Therien wrote that he was impressed with Newman’s integration of laboratory experiments and demonstrations and a teaching style that emphasizes “visualization, manipulation and communication.
“Required at the conclusion of her lab reports, students must describe either a real world application or analogue of the experiment or concepts they just studied,” Therien wrote. “As my son Aidan pointed out to me, no one in Kari’s course should need to ask her 'why is this important?’ It is Kari’s expectation that this is the exact question they should be asking themselves. This method of teaching has inspired both of my children to want to learn more about chemistry.”