Bryan Lake ’02 received a 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for his work as a kindergarten teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Urbana, Ill.

He’ll receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a paid trip for two to the recognition ceremony and professional development events in Washington, D.C., in the spring. The award was announced Dec. 20.

When Lake came to Grinnell College, his original goal was pre-med. In high school, he thrived in chemistry and biology courses.

It was his first-year tutorial, “Peacemaking,” with Martha Voyles, an associate professor of education, that got Lake thinking about a change in direction. An American Studies course cemented that impulse, and in his junior year, he “decided to change everything.”

That led him to majoring in American Studies and earning his certification in elementary education.

Lake started his career as a fourth-grade teacher, which hooked him on science again. He used active learning to help students get their hands dirty — literally. He says his students’ “eyes got wider.”

When he moved into teaching second grade, Lake taught science as heavily activity based. Students investigated simple machines and discovered how basic circuits work. Their sense of wonder convinced Lake that he was on the right track.

While Lake pursued National Board Certification, he began making connections across subject areas. He developed an integrated math and science unit to foster students’ sense of wonder across disciplines.

When he moved into his kindergarten classroom, Lake’s biggest goal was to tie everything together — math, social studies, physical education, and health, for example. He eagerly embraced science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teaching and learning, which led to the work for which he won the presidential award.

“It’s a huge honor,” Lake says, but “it says more about what kindergarteners can do.” He adds that those young students are capable of higher-level thinking than people think.

Now, in his 11th year of teaching, Lake is working with teachers as one of three elementary instructional coaches for the Urbana, Ill., school district. While he supports all teachers in all subject-areas in his two schools, he’s starting to break back into science.

He’s also helping teachers flesh out their own inquiry projects as they work with the new science standards. For example, some second- through fourth-grade teachers will collaborate with the music teacher to use a variety of instruments and recording devices to capture sound waves. 

The job presented an opportunity to inspire more scientific inquiry-based learning and teaching on a larger scale, Lake says. He also saw it as a chance to learn from colleagues.

Lake misses the kids, though, and hopes to teach kindergarten again someday.

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