Three-time Lumberjack wins Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Robyn Yewell

A decade ago, Robyn Yewell was working in the private sector with no background in education other than her experiences as a student.

Today, she’s been a teacher for nine years and is committed to providing a high-quality, accessible STEM education to all students.

She is also undeniably one of the best teachers in the nation.

Yewell, an elementary school teacher in Tucson and a master’s student in the Center for Science Teaching, was announced in February as one of the national awardees of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, K-6,  for 2020. She is one of only two awardees from Arizona.

“Without a doubt, this honor is a reflection of hard work, effort and dedication not only on my part but also of those that I have been fortunate to teach and work alongside over the years,” she said. “I am incredibly blessed to work within a supportive community and collaborate with colleagues who really do inspire me every day.”

Yewell’s trajectory in education decades ago, even if she didn’t recognize it then. She remembered being a student in Arizona schools and feeling the passion for learning and knowledge that her teachers felt. Their excitement made her feel empowered and enjoy learning in a collaborative environment. Even though her first degree was in business and she worked in the corporate world, she never forgot those educational experiences in her formative years.

She considered a career change about 15 years ago when she realized how unfulfilled she felt in business. Yewell knew she wanted to be a teacher, so she looked for degree programs that allowed her to keep her day job while also attending school. She quickly found NAU, which had a reputation for high-quality graduate programs, and enrolled in the master’s of education program. She was finally on the path to her dream job.

“With the flexibility that NAU provided, I was able to work during the day and balance my schedule of classes and schoolwork during the evening—and do all of this with a newborn,” Yewell said. “My professors were incredibly supportive, and the knowledge I gained throughout my coursework and within my cohort immediately prepared me for my new career as a teacher. Throughout my journey, I have never forgotten how NAU supported me.”

Robyn Yewell and man
Robyn and her father, Robin Cattler

It was so positive, in fact, that she returned a year after graduation with a master’s of education degree to earn a master’s in multicultural and bilingual education. Eight years later, with support from the Arizona Teachers Academy, she enrolled in the Master of Arts in Science Teaching (MAST) through the Center for Science Teaching and Learning.

All of it has helped her to evolve into the teacher she is today—one who provides elementary students with opportunities to integrate math, science and language in cross-subject integration. Science is not a matter of memorizing facts but is a body of continually increasing knowledge that creates pathways to build evidence-based models and theories, and she aims to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn.

“If as educators, we are providing opportunities to integrate STEM to elementary school students, then we are giving them the best chance that they will maintain their sense of wonder and curiosity about how the natural world works,” she said. “Without a doubt, preparing the next generation of STEM thinkers and problem-solvers is necessary in preparing young minds to become 21st-century thinkers.”

Robyn YewellTo ensure students are gaining an understanding of the full breadth of science, she uses three-dimensional learning, scientific and engineering practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts. These methods allow students to take what they learn in the classroom, see it occurring in nature or other systems and then apply their critical thinking skills to explain how and why these events occurred. “I never want to give anything away,” Yewell said—she wants students to explore and process and arrive at the knowledge on their own.

It’s exactly the kind of work her colleagues and professors in the College of Education expect of her.

“The President’s Award confirms what many of us already knew—that Robyn is an exceptional science educator,” said Ron Gray, an associate professor of science education and graduate programs coordinator in the College of Education. “She is deeply engaged and imaginative in her work. For example, to teach her students about energy transfer, she devised a unit focused on explaining how the inside of a parked car in the Phoenix summer can become hot enough to cook a tray of cookies. I am excited Robyn won this award, as she is a creative, caring, and deeply engaged educator whom I have learned a lot from.”

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications