LEXINGTON — For Kayla Heimann, it began with a childhood rock collection, dinosaurs on her bedroom walls and a father who helped instill an interest for science into his daughter.
“I have always had a love for science,” said the 33-year-old Eastern Elementary School teacher, recalling hours watching science documentaries on television with her dad, Steve Faudree, whose own fascination with the topic was easily passed along.
Her passion has paid dividends for her Lexington students over the past 11 years — and she is now a national finalist slot for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honors for mathematics and science teachers.
Heimann is one of only four Ohio teachers (one math, three science) in the running for the national competition. A national committee will choose up to 108 U.S. winners during the summer of 2021.
The program honors teachers for contributions to instruction and learning, as well as their ability to help students make progress in mathematics and science. The 2020 competition recognizes kindergarten through grade 6 educators. Next year’s competition will honor teachers grades 7-12.
“Awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of mathematics and science education,” according to the Ohio Dept. of Education website.
Heimann, who grew up in the small town of Sebring in Mahoning County, recently returned to teaching from leave after the birth of her second child. She and her husband, Scott, have two sons, Lincoln, 2, and Jefferson, now four months old.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has turned much local education virtual, has made teaching and learning more difficult.
Lexington schools, which began their winter break Wednesday, are not scheduled to go back to in-class sessions until at least Jan. 19
“I am trying to make it as engaging as I can, but the hands-on teaching, working with students in the classroom … that’s what I love,” Heimann said. “It’s so much better in person. In the classroom, looking at students’ faces, you can tell who gets it … who doesn’t .. and who needs more from me.
“I hope to see all their smiling faces soon,” she said.
Oddly enough, new Eastern Elementary Principal Michael Grist has never seen Heimann actually work in the classroom due to her leave and the pandemic — but he has heard nothing but good things.
“Kayla was on maternity leave until we started remote learning. I actually have never seen her in a classroom with students, yet. That being said, I have been impressed with her professionalism and communication in this unique school year,” Grist said.
“She jumped right into remote learning a few weeks ago, which is a unique way to have a ‘first day of school’ with her students. She is a very positive person and gets along very well with her teammates and the staff. I have heard nothing but great things about Kayla from other staff members, and look forward to seeing her work with her students in-person soon!” Grist said.
As part of the national competition, Heimann had to submit various materials demonstrating the “five dimensions of outstanding teaching,” including:
— mastery of content appropriate to grade level taught.
— use of effective instructional methods and strategies appropriate for the students in the classroom and that support student learning.
— effective use of student assessments to evaluate, monitor, and improve student learning.
— reflective practice and life-long learning to improve teaching and student learning.
— leadership in education inside and outside the classroom.
One of the requirements was a video. Hamann said she was fortunate to start the lengthy application process in December 2019 — a few months before the pandemic shuttered classrooms statewide in March.
“I was able to make a video of me actually teaching students,” she said. “I was lucky. A lot of teachers had to do videos of themselves teaching online.”
Heimann is a certified teacher for grades 4-9 in science, social studies and math, having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Ashland University and has obtained principal licenses for K-12.
During her time with the Lexington district, Heimann has served as a new teacher mentor through the Ohio Department of Education, coached junior high volleyball and swimming, served as a coach for the varsity swim program, and advises the elementary robotics club.
“I am very proud that we had 63 kids in the club last year (before COVID),” she said. “Just introducing the students to coding is huge.”
Involvement with education beyond the classroom walls is nothing new to Heimann.
Four years ago, she spent 11 months in Washington, D.C., with the National Science Foundation as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Education Fellow, applying her knowledge and classroom experiences to help shape education policy.
She returned to Lexington with a much broader knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and armed with the knowledge of other possibilities to expand her educational horizons.
“That was the most amazing, rewarding experience I have had,” Heimann said. “I learned about all these amazing opportunities for teachers that never get disseminated down. That’s where I learned about this (presidential) award.”
She was selected as a United States-Japan Fulbright Exchange Teacher for Environment Sustainable Development (ESD), where she had the opportunity to learn and collaborate with teachers from Japan.
She was on a team of teachers from her district in NASA’s Teaching from Space program, one of seven teams selected nationwide. The program included a week in Houston, Texas, where she conducted a classroom experiment on NASA’s microgravity plane.
In addition to her time with NASA, Kayla was a DOW fellow with NSTA’s New Science Teacher Academy, a member of the Ohio Energy Project’s Energy Sources Tour, and one of 12 Ohio educators chosen for the Mickelson ExxonMobil STEM Teachers Academy.
She serves as a Middle Level Committee member on the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) board, is the District 2 Director for Science Education Council of Ohio (SECO), and a Squad Captain on the 100Kin10 organization’s Teacher Leader Forum.
She has presented at the National Science Foundation on the importance of Elementary Science Education, Female STEM Careers at John Hopkins University, Federal Resources for Educators at the Ohio’s Middle Level Association (OMLA) conference, and STEM Outside the Classroom Museum Educator Resources at the 100Kin10 Annual Summit.
She also had the opportunity to serve as a NSF peer reviewer for the Robert Noyce Scholarship Master Track Three proposals.
The Presidential Award for which Heimann is a finalist carries a $10,000 prize, a citation signed by the president and perhaps a paid visit to the White House, if COVID-19 restrictions allow, to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities.
It would be the continuation of an educational journey that began on the couch with her dad, watching science-based documentaries on television. The cash prize would also come in handy.
“I plan on paying off master’s program loans if I received that,” she said with a laugh.