NewsJan 14, 2020

Alumnae win highest national honor for math and science teaching

A passion for mathematics and a love for lifelong learning drive two Presidential Award winners

Jennifer Moriarty and Elise Catalano headshots
Above: Award winners Dr. Jennifer Moriarty and Elise Catalano.

Two Lesley alumnae, Dr. Jennifer Moriarty M.Ed. ’07 and Elise Catalano M.Ed. ’99, were recently awarded the 2018 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). The PAEMST is the highest recognition that a K-12 teacher in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science can receive for outstanding teaching in the U.S. Both teachers received their master’s degrees in Educational Technology from Lesley and both have focused on improving math education through technology.

Catalano, who teaches math in Rye, New Hampshire, was drawn to a career in teaching when she was still in high school. She loves the challenge of working with middle schoolers.

“They’re such unique beings — they’re at that age when they want to be independent but yet they know that they need their parents and teachers involved, so it’s a constant push and give and learning to read the kids.”

She came to Lesley in the late 1990s to learn how to use then-emerging Internet technology as a tool in her math classroom. Since then she has developed and enriched mathematics curricula including a full mathematics curriculum, an enrichment curriculum for high-achieving students, and a summer mathematics camp for students who are struggling.

“Technology changes so often but the fundamental skills and ideas of how to implement things into the classroom have stayed the same.” Her current goals include enabling her students to be more than passive consumers of apps or video games. “I want to get kids not to be the users of the technology but the creators of the new technology.”

As a high school student, Moriarty loved video games and had a budding interest in computer science, despite an aversion to math.

“I wanted to major in computer science and then I was really nervous because I was like, ‘You have to take all these math courses?’ And then I started really falling in love with the mathematics.”

A pie-in-the-sky idea

She taught math for eight years before making an important transition.

“I was running this afterschool computer club — ‘let me teach you about computer concepts and then we can play video games.’ I had so many kids showing up that we had to bring in chairs from other classrooms.” The students were not only enthusiastic about the gaming but also drawn to the computer science, giving Jennifer the idea of making this a way of teaching. It was a Lesley course where that idea cohesively came together. “We had to plan out a dream project, like a crazy, pie-in-the-sky idea for a classroom and I plotted out the idea of a video gaming class. I’d just started my doctorate and it took off. It’s a hybrid computer science, math, and design course. My heart is still in math but computer science is used as a framework to support the mathematical learning.”

The Presidential Award took her by surprise. “It still feels like a dream. I still have a lot of improvement and work towards my craft, so I was kind of surprised that I got it now!”

A celebration of math and science education

The award ceremonies in October brought more than 200 teachers from across the US to Washington D.C.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Catalano. “There was so much excitement in the room. Everyone who was passionate about math and science and STEM careers altogether and talking about ideas, what we do in the classroom, what we can do to make it even better than it is now.”

Cultivating a love of learning

The importance of lifelong learning is a constant theme for both teachers and both are dedicated to keeping up with ever-changing technologies.

“I feel like every day there’s something new,” says Catalano. “But it’s fun to learn. I’m always looking for something new to engage the kids or a new approach, even after 26 years of teaching. Otherwise, we’d get bored.”

Moriarty is working with her school’s robotics team, finding common programming tools that can be used for both programming video games and robots.

“It’s been a steep learning curve with robotics but it’s super fun and it’s neat to be able to see the stuff we’re doing in our classrooms with games in a completely different environment,” she says. “I love trying to learn things alongside my students and going through the learning process and sometimes getting stuck or frustrated — that’s one of my favorite parts of robotics. I still have a lot to learn.”