September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2014 State Finalists for Prestigious National Teaching Award

Posted: Monday, August 4th, 2014

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated six outstanding elementary school teachers as California finalists for the 2014 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

The science nominees are Kirsten Johnson, a fifth grade teacher at Ninety Third Street Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles County; Julie McGough, a first/second grade combination class teacher at Valley Oak Elementary in the Clovis Unified School District, Fresno County; Stefanie Pechan, a fifth grade teacher at Robert Down Elementary in the Pacific Grove Unified School District, Monterey County; and Erica Rood (CSTA Member), a third grade teacher at CHIME Charter School in the Los Angeles Unified School District (charter authorizer), Los Angeles County.

The math nominees are Andrew Kotko, a first grade teacher at Mather Heights Elementary in the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, Sacramento County; and Sara Norris, a first grade teacher at the Mills College Children’s School, School of Education at Mills College, Alameda County.

“The subjects these outstanding educators teach so well are part of STEM education, an area that is critically important to the success of our students and our state,” Torlakson said. “From these early grades, and with such engaged and inspired instructors, we will be able to encourage more students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the building blocks of learning.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partnered with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. Each applicant must demonstrate a mastery of math or science, appropriate use of instructional methods and strategies, effective use of assessment strategies, lifelong learning, and leadership in education outside the classroom. Each candidate also was required to submit a 45-minute video lesson in support of their application. State finalists were selected by a review panel of their peers who reviewed each candidate’s content knowledge, pedagogical effectiveness, achievement results, and professional involvement.

Science Finalists

Kirsten Johnson is a fifth grade teacher at Ninety Third Street Elementary School External link opens in new window or tab. in Los Angeles, where she has taught for 21 years and is the Science Lead Teacher. This past school year, she rotated into classrooms once a week and taught science to other fourth or fifth grades. Johnson encourages her students to enter a variety of competitions, such as the Council of Educational Facility Planners International’s School of the Future Design Competition. For the past four years, Johnson’s students have been finalists in the competition. Ms. Johnson has a Bachelor of Arts from Howard University.

Julie McGough is a first/second grade combination class teacher at Valley Oak Elementary School External link opens in new window or tab. in Fresno. She has been teaching for 16 years, including five years in her current position. She incorporates technology in a variety of ways in her classroom. With the help of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, her students raised salmon in the classroom. During the process, students were able to use scientific tools and shared their learning experiences through blogs with families, the school community, and pen pals in Quito, Ecuador. Mrs. McGough collaborates with teachers and parents to write curriculum for the Outdoor Learning Center on campus, is a mentor teacher to pre-service teachers, is an adjunct faculty member at Fresno State, teaching Science and Technology Methods, and serves as committee member of the National Science Teacher Association Committee on Preschool Elementary Science Teaching. Mrs. McGough has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Auburn University and a Master of Education from Hardin-Simmons University.

Stefanie Pechan is a fifth grade teacher at Robert Down Elementary School External link opens in new window or tab. in Pacific Grove, where she is a member of the Instructional Leadership Team. She has been teaching for 13 years, including five in her current position. She uses pencasts/screencasts to provide both a visual and auditory cue for the various learning styles that exist within her classroom. Mrs. Pechan is part of the Education Staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which provides opportunities for her to work with teachers at the state and national level. She has been invited by the Monterey County Office of Education to help develop a series of workshops on teaching science. Mrs. Pechan holds a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Computer Science and Technology from the California State University, Monterey Bay.

Erica Rood is a third grade teacher at CHIME Charter School External link opens in new window or tab. in Woodland Hills, where she has taught for six years. She has been a mentor teacher to several student teachers. She strongly believes that other content areas can be taught through science. Ms. Rood is leading the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards on campus. Her teaching has been videoed and photographed for several published books on Co-Teaching. She is currently enrolled in a master’s program, STEM Education in Curriculum and Instruction at California State University, Northridge and the NASA Endeavor Leadership program. Ms. Rood holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mathematics Finalists

Andrew Kotko is a first grade teacher at Mather Heights Elementary External link opens in new window or tab. in Mather. He has been teaching for 12 years, including four years in his current position. He achieved National Board Certification in 2007. In March 2014, he spoke to members of the U.S. Congress on behalf of the National Board “advocating for increased concentration of certified teachers and mirroring the medical residency model in teacher prep.” He also serves as vice-chair of the California Teacher Advisory Council. He was a California PAEMST finalist in 2012. The topic he chose to teach in his lesson as part of his application was that of the fundamental mathematics concept “base-ten place value.” Mr. Kotko has a Bachelor of Science in physics from California State University, Sacramento.

Sara Norris is a first grade teacher at the Mills College Children’s School External link opens in new window or tab. in Oakland. She has been teaching for 11 years, including six in her current position. She has been highly involved in the Lesson Study Collaboration at Mills College and was a co-presenter of Listening for Learning: Reflections on Two Years of Lesson Study Collaboration in Mathematics at the Conference of the International Association of Laboratory and University Affiliated Schools in Pittsburg, PA in 2011. She was a previous California PAEMST finalist in 2012. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education from Mills College.


The National Science Foundation administers PAEMST on behalf of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. PAEMST was enacted by Congress in 1983 and authorizes the President each year to bestow up to 108 awards. PAEMST awards primary and secondary teachers in alternate years. Awards are given to mathematics and science teachers from each of the 50 states and four U.S. jurisdictions including Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; Department of Defense Schools; and the U.S. territories.

Since the program’s inception, 86 California teachers have been named PAEMST recipients. Please visit the PAEMST External link opens in new window or tab. Web site for additional information.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.