Two CU-Boulder students win $150,000 teaching fellowships

April 19, 2011 •

Two students at the University of Colorado Boulder have been awarded major teaching fellowships by the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, or KSTF, for 2011. CU-Boulder undergraduates Julia Ratcliff and Cacia Steensen were among 37 new fellowships awarded nationwide for teachers of biology, mathematics and physical science.

The KSTF Teaching Fellowship was established to support, sustain and inspire exceptional young men and women committed to making a difference as teachers. The fellowship is designed to meet the needs of teachers from the time they begin working on a teaching credential through the early years of their career.

The fellowships combine extensive financial and professional support, with the total award for each fellow valued at nearly $150,000 over five years. Fellows receive tuition assistance while participating in a teacher-credentialing program, monthly stipends, and grants for professional development and teaching materials.

Julia Ratcliff, a senior majoring in applied mathematics with an emphasis in secondary education, was selected to be part of the mathematics cohort of KSTF teaching fellows.

"I am very excited and feel very fortunate for having been selected," said Ratcliff, a Boulder High graduate who will be a student teacher at Longmont High School in the fall.

Ratcliff became interested in teaching during her first year in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, when she became acquainted with instructor Mary Nelson in the applied mathematics department.

During her sophomore year, Ratcliff served as a Learning Assistant, or LA, a position in which she helped to facilitate small-group learning within a large-enrollment course. As a scholar in the Presidents Leadership Institute, Ratcliff also analyzed what she saw as some of the problems in education.

Nelson, who praises Ratcliff's ability to explain concepts to others, subsequently invited her to participate in her National Science Foundation-funded research, which focuses on improving mathematics teaching and learning. Among the promising techniques Nelson has pioneered is the use of oral review sessions, which help students enhance their conceptual understanding of mathematics, thereby enabling them to better apply the concepts in novel situations.

Ratcliff conducted oral assessments at Centaurus High School in Lafayette with support from a Noyce Fellowship. She also spent the last two summers working with Native American high school students in the Upward Bound program.

"I really, really enjoy teaching -- working with other people," said Ratcliff.

While only a small number of engineering undergraduates pursue teaching careers, Ratcliff said, "What I realized is, it is important to make sure those who are going into education know what they're doing. … Many of the problems in education are systemic. It's a great opportunity to make a start towards developing a more effective educational system."

Steensen, a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology with an emphasis on secondary science education, will graduate this semester summa cum laude. She was selected to be part of the biology cohort of KSTF teaching fellows.

Alexander Cruz, a CU-Boulder biology professor and Presidential Teaching Scholar who is overseeing Steensen's honors thesis, said he has supervised the research of about 20 honors students. "But I cannot think of one who was equal to Cacia Steensen in her motivation and dedication to pursue a career in science education."

Steensen said she has long been passionate about science but did not intend to become a teacher. "As time went on, however, I realized that teaching was something that I really enjoyed and that I had the potential to be really good at," she said.

She also has excelled as a researcher.

In Cruz's lab, Steensen worked with a species of fish called Synodontis multipunctatus -- the cuckoo catfish. The fish is only able to reproduce when another species of fish, cichlids, nurtures developing cuckoo catfish inside of their mouths. This is the only known fish species that is a "brood parasite."

"My thesis was based on the specific visual cues that allow the catfish to lay its eggs at the right time to be able to parasitize the cichlid hosts," Steensen said, adding, "Super cool!"

Like Ratcliff, Steensen has been an undergraduate Learning Assistant, served as an instructor assistant with Upward Bound and has won a Noyce Fellowship.

Steensen said she knows the importance of high-quality math and science teachers. "Not only are the content ideas important in these areas, but science and math provide a way of thinking that allows problems of all kinds, in all disciplines, to be considered critically," she said.

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