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STEM teachers who 'want to be there' for students honored


“When students come into the classroom, my big assumption is ‘You’re all going to be scientists’  — that’s my goal,” said Molly Shabica, the recipient of a Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics. “But even if they’re not going to be scientists, they’re going to be scientifically literate. How do I make sure that they believe they are capable and that they understand the world in a scientific way?”

Since 2009, the Fund for the City of New York has presented annual awards to high school math and science teachers in the public school system who inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Each of the seven winners received a $5,000 prize, as well as $2,500 for their school’s math and science programs. The seven teachers were honored earlier this month during a ceremony at the Intrepid Museum.

Raised in Rhode Island, Shabica studied biology at Brown University and joined the Peace Corps right after graduating. 

In 2002, Shabica first began teaching at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx. “When I first started teaching, I knew I needed to know the science I was teaching enough so that I could be excited about it and develop interesting projects,” she told The Chief. “But when I was first floundering during my first year of teaching, I didn’t need to know more science, I needed to know how to build relationships with my students.”

Luckily, she had an example to help her: her late mother, who was a high school science teacher.  “She’s a very special teacher who taught me how to build great relationships with her students,” she said.

Shabica said her interest in science emerged thanks to being surrounded by scientists — her mother had a Ph.D. in genetics while several other family members, including her paternal grandfather and her brother, also studied and pursued careers in the sciences. 

For winner Joshua Modeste, an environmental science and AP biology teacher at the Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce in East Harlem, his fascination with the sciences stemmed from the classes he took from kindergarten onwards. Modeste, himself educated in the city public school system, majored in biology at SUNY Plattsburgh, but it was while he was in college that he decided to pursue teaching.

“In high school, a lot of my classmates were interested in studying medicine. But when I got into Plattsburgh, I started realizing the kids of color were struggling with the work. I found that diversity was shrinking as we got into the major courses,” he said during a recent phone interview.

'It makes a difference'

Modeste earned a master’s degree in education, and began teaching at the UA School for Global Commerce soon after graduating in 2016.

He decided to launch the UA Commerce Science Research Club after volunteering as a judge at the New York City Science and Engineering Fair, where he noticed that there weren’t many participants from his school or his district. And during the pandemic, Modeste developed a summer stem cell research program with the New York Stem Cell Foundation that aimed to provide students with more hands-on experience by having them work in a lab with researchers.

Modeste, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is also a course assistant on issues of race and racism in teaching. “Black men are less than 2 percent of teachers in the U.S. It makes a difference for kids to see someone that represents their race or gender,” he said.

The educator said that he hopes one day to transition to teaching future teachers. “I have the opportunity of working with so many dope educators and mentors, and receiving this award is a reflection of all of the people who have poured into me,” he said.

Shabica was highlighted for her effort helping to raise funds to get her students involved in the Wolbachia Project, a lab series aimed at researching a type of bacteria found in insects. “It was something that was very accessible to high school science students with a little bit of formal instruction,” she explained. “They’re learning how to use scientific equipment they might see on CSI.”

In 2010, after launching the initiative, Shabica and her children moved to Bamako, Mali, where her husband was working in international public health. She taught math and science at the American International School in the West African country’s capital. But after the Malian military overtook the government in 2012, Shabica and her family returned to the U.S. 

“I called my principal [at Fannie Lou] in April 2012 and she said ‘Are you coming back to me?’” she said. “That was one of the worst emotional experiences of my life. Coming back to my first principal, who nurtured me, really stabilized me.” 

Shabica is working on designing a new curriculum for a kitchen chemistry class, and hopes to relaunch the Wolbachia Project at her school. “I love going to work, and that is a beautiful thing to say after 20 years,” she said.

Other winners included Carine Hall-Brown, a living environment teacher at the High School for Excellence & Innovation and Jessica Boyle, an anatomy and forensic anthropology teacher at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy International High School.

Winner Laginne Walker, an algebra and chemistry teacher at the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, was celebrated for creating her school’s computer-science curriculum.

Also honored were  Eleuterio Timbol, an algebra and trigonometry teacher at the High School for Law Enforcement & Public Safety, and Padma Paramananda, a physics and robotics teacher at the Brooklyn School for Math & Research. “Kids can tell if you actually want to be here or not. They actually buy it more because they’re like, ‘If he’s this excited, then maybe I should be, too,” Paramananda said.


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