Excellence in Teaching awards

By Patti Koning

Photography By Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Livermore educators win Sandia Excellence in Teaching awards

Transitional kindergarten teacher Heather Dion received a Sandia National Laboratories Excellence in Teaching Award for her innovative use of technology in her classroom. (Photo courtesy of Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District)

A recent knock on the classroom doors of three Livermore teachers brought a welcome surprise — the news that Heather Dion, Donna Lee, and Amanda Johnston had won the Sandia National Laboratories Excellence in Teaching Award.

Presented annually to teachers in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD) for extraordinary dedication in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, the honor comes with a $500 cash award to each teacher.

“Innovation in bringing new and engaging ideas into their classrooms was a theme among the winners,” says Madeline Burchard, Sandia community relations officer. “So we decided to be a bit innovative by surprising the teachers in their classrooms before they were officially recognized at a Livermore School Board meeting.”

The school district’s Public Relations Officer, Sam Tobis, STEM coordinator Regina Brinker, and Livermore Valley Education Foundation (LVEF) trustee Sue Ackerman joined Madeline in notifying the winning teachers.

Amanda Johnston — no task too big

Johnston, a Livermore High School (LHS) science teacher, has taken on challenges usually reserved for more senior staff. Within her first two years, she was already teaching multiple subjects.

“She has done a great job with many classes including our Green Engineering Academy’s most demanding course, engineering physics, which combines physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, and robotics,” says Mike Waltz, a teacher in the LHS Green Engineering Academy. “I don’t think there is another new teacher who could handle this breadth of rigorous STEM subject material all while learning the skills of classroom management.”

Outside the classroom, Johnston attended Project Lead-the-Way training and seminars to learn about new technology for the engineering curriculum. She also galvanized her entire Engineering Physics class to compete in the school district’s Science Odyssey and coached the LHS girls water polo team.

Donna Lee — quiet dedication

Lee, a science teacher at Junction Avenue K-8 School, was nominated for bringing progressive STEM curriculum to her students and her passion for ensuring access to educational opportunities for all, regardless of economic background.

Lee has completed extensive teacher training, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Teacher Research Academy, the Exploratorium Teacher Institute, and Project Lead-the-Way summer. She helped her students participate in Expanding Your Horizons by arranging for transportation and securing scholarships that paid registration fees.

Heather Dion — sharing the world in her classroom

Dion, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Jackson Avenue Elementary School, was recognized for her innovative use of technology to make classroom material come alive, including Skype videocalls with scientists in Antarctica and a veterinarian at a turtle hospital. She challenged her 4- and 5-year-old students to program spherical robots through mazes and a variety of other challenges.

“Failure is not a bad thing in Ms. Dion’s classroom. It is a way to learn,” says Julie Janzen, the district’s elementary technology specialist. “It is amazing. Even during free time her students continue to ‘play’ with scientific concepts.”

STEM education a priority for Sandia

In 2007, Sandia established an endowment with LVEF to fund the Excellence in Teaching Award. Principals and staff members can nominate teachers for the award, and parents and students are encouraged to submit suggestions for potential nominees to principals. LVEF organizes and leads the selection committee, which includes its representatives and those from the school district, Sandia, and the community.

The Excellence in Teaching award is just one way that Sandia supports STEM education in the community. Other programs include Family Science Night, the DOE Science Bowl, Expanding Your Horizons, and the Math and Science Awards. Through employee volunteers and donations from the Lockheed Martin Gifts and Grants program, Sandia also supports MathCounts and numerous science fairs and STEM competitions.