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The North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology (SMT) Education Center held its annual celebration on April 27 to honor students who have participated in science and math competitions as well as educators and organizations who are supporting high-quality science and mathematics education in the state.

Sam Houston, president and CEO of the SMT Center, said that he hoped the event would inspire everyone to make STEM all that it can be, with the goal of North Carolina becoming a national hub for STEM.

And for Houston, the skills that go into a STEM education aren’t just technical. Another key to a solid STEM education, he said, is imagination.

“We have to have accountability. We also need to have kids who are creative and can use their imagination to think about things in new and different ways,” he said. “Imagination is so important. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity that we use today to look into the future and do things with the unknown. It’s what really makes education relevant, and I think interesting and exciting for the mind.”

The SMT Celebration dinner included an estimated 400 guests. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Both educator and student awardees reflected strong and innovative achievements in STEM. Educator awards during the SMT Celebration included the Career Awards for Science and Mathematics Teachers (CASMT), presented by Alfred Mays of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which has invested over $5.7 million in the awards since 2010.

“The CASMT recipients here tonight truly make a difference in their students’ lives through skillful teaching and their expertise in STEM content,” Mays said.

2019 CASMT award recipients — receiving an award of $175,000 over five years to their school and professional development opportunities — were: 

Cassandra Cherry, Phillips Middle School, Edgecombe County Schools
Renata Crawley, West Marion Elementary School, McDowell County Schools
Clinton Jones, Ansonville Elementary School, Anson County Schools
Beverly Owens, Kings Mountain Middle School, Cleveland County Schools
Sara-Elizabeth Senseney, Mountain Heritage High School, Yancey County Schools

In addition to several other educator awards, such as outstanding instructional leader and outstanding informal educator (learn more on awardees here), many students in attendance with their families were recognized for their achievements in various SMT Center programs.

Last summer, seniors Nidhi Oruganti (Green Hope High School) and Megha Raman (Enloe High School) participated in the Summer Ventures program through the N.C. School for Science and Mathematics. The summer program is hosted by campuses across the UNC System, and the two stayed on the campus of Appalachian State University to complete a research project. Their topic: a predictive analysis on the effects of multilingualism on Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think I learned a lot of valuable skills in just how to do research. … Before this I’ve never sat down and done an entire research project. And then also just living at a university for a summer, like in the dorms, is a lot of fun. I think it helps prepare us for college,” said Oruganti, who will be attending UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.

“I felt like being able to present in front of a group of people about something that was so truly ours — we had created this information from scratch — that was such a rewarding part of it,” added Raman, who will be attending Carnegie Mellon. 

Their exploratory data analysis with lecturer Caleb Marsh at Appalachian State resulted in a Catalyst award, the opportunity to present their research at the N.C. State Undergraduate Research & Creativity Symposium, and a publication in the Summer Ventures research anthology.

“We have a citation, which is really awesome,” Raman said.

Raman’s mother, Geetha Venkataraman, also works in the STEM field and was in attendance at the event.

“I’m very, very impressed,” she said of the SMT Celebration. “I had no idea about this much work being done simultaneously in different counties in North Carolina.”

Asheboro High School and State Math Fair winners Rolando Hernandez, Jenna Graham, and Arvin Kushwaha with teacher Wendy Graham. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

At a nearby table, students from Asheboro High School celebrated their recognition in the State Math Fair.

Sophomore Arvin Kushwaha was awarded first place at the State Math Fair last year, with a project focused on cryptosecurity. Because of his love of math and science, he hopes to one day become a physicist, and he had a word on how to get more students on board with math:

“I think that it’s not math itself that’s intrinsically hard. I feel it’s the way that math is taught,” he said. “Different ways that math is taught can change how students perceive math because students have all sorts of different ways of learning. If a teacher specifically focuses on only a single way or a single method of teaching, then you can’t exactly make everyone like math. Only specific groups of people who learn the same way will like math. If you … have more diverse teaching methods, more students can learn and appreciate math better.”

Schoolmates and freshmen Rolando Hernandez and Jenna Graham had already found their place in mathematics since developing a strong interest in the subject in the sixth grade. At the SMT celebration, they were recognized for winning second place in the State Math Fair.

“This year, we did a project called the birthday paradox. It was just a statement, like a theory, that if there’s 23 people in the room, there’s a 50/50 chance that two people will have the same birthday. We went around to different classrooms and collected data to prove the theory right,” said Graham.

“We put so much effort in creating our project and completing it, and getting judged was really hard,” added teammate Hernandez, who also appreciated being celebrated along with other awardees.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “You’re seeing all the teachers be recognized and how they devote their career to students.”

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.