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North Carroll Middle School teacher Denise Kresslein demonstrates to students how to build a model of the DNA molecule using licorice and marshmallows in class Thursday, October 31, 2019.
North Carroll Middle School teacher Denise Kresslein demonstrates to students how to build a model of the DNA molecule using licorice and marshmallows in class Thursday, October 31, 2019. (Dylan Slagle)

Denise Kresslein, a life science teacher at North Carroll Middle School, was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching recently in a ceremony in Washington D.C.

The award is the highest honor given by the federal government to kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers of mathematics and science. It is administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Each awardee received a citation signed by the president and a $10,000 award.

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Noah Scholl, a science teacher at Mt. Airy Middle School, was a finalist for the award.

Kresslein was nominated by her supervisor Jim Peters in November 2017, when she was a teacher at West Middle School. She received notice this September that she was in the running for the award but had to keep it secret from almost everyone until the White House officially announced the news in mid-October. She began teaching seventh-grade science this year at North Carroll Middle School.

Peters said that he does not make nominations for the award lightly.

“When I think about my children, who would I want them to have as a science teacher?" he said. "She certainty would be at the top of that list.”

Kresslein has always been an excellent classroom teacher, he said, but as the Carroll County school system has adopted so-called “Next Generation Science Standards,” she has been a leader. Not only do her students benefit from having her in the classroom, but other teachers benefit from the professional development she leads, the curriculum she writes and the state committees she serves on.

What the system is looking for, he said, is a “paradigm shift past teaching, more toward learning, more toward figuring things out.”

The application packet for the award was hefty and asked Kresslein to scrutinize her own work closely.

“It was really detailed and really focused and gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own teaching, and improve as a result of the process,” she said.

With a laugh, she added: “I’m one that’s constantly changing. Everything. ... Even during a day, I’m changing. What works in the morning might not work in the afternoon."

A panel of state educators from kindergarten to higher education scrutinized her application before she was chosen as one of the three state finalists from Maryland. The state nominees were passed on to the National Science Foundation, which selected the national winners. Teachers from all 50 states as well as U.S. territories and Department of Defense schools abroad are eligible for the award.

North Carroll Middle School teacher Denise Kresslein helps seventh-graders Brody Morrision, left, and Landon Ruhlman as they build models of DNA molecules using licorice and marshmallows in class Thursday, October 31, 2019.
North Carroll Middle School teacher Denise Kresslein helps seventh-graders Brody Morrision, left, and Landon Ruhlman as they build models of DNA molecules using licorice and marshmallows in class Thursday, October 31, 2019. (Dylan Slagle)

As part of the process, Kresslein met and connected with educators from all over.

“That’s probably one of the best things about winning this award, is having the chance to network with teachers from all over the country that are doing the same thing that you’re doing ... and having those people that you can turn to and contact if you have a question or a new project.”

During a packed, three-day trip to DC, Kresslein participated in professional development, networked with scores of other teachers, gave input on the national standards for science curriculum and was honored at an awards ceremony at the Department of the Interior. Other stops included a visit to the Kennedy Center, a STEM education summit and a tour of the White House.

Some of the high-level science and education experts she met included directors from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. Though she did not meet President Donald Trump — he was in Texas at the time of the ceremony — his signature is on the award.

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“I really feel like it’s a shared honor for me,” she said. “It really speaks to my mentors and all the people that have helped me. And my students. I learn so much from them.”

Kresslein began teaching in Carroll County in 1996, though she paused for a few years while her kids were young. She has enjoyed teaching at the middle school level since her student-teaching days.

“When I had the opportunity to move to sixth grade, I did that,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I had some great mentors at West Middle that really helped guide me and show me how fun teaching can be. That really solidified me staying in the middle school and continuing for so many years in sixth grade.”

Before this year, a Carroll County teacher had not won the Presidential Award for math and science teaching since 2002, Peters said. In July, Manchester Valley High School’s Hannah McNett was named one of three Maryland teachers in consideration for the 2019 award. She is in the midst of the same long review process Kresslein underwent.

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