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SMT Center honors students, educators, and organizations, including EdNC

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The N.C. Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (SMT Center) annually presents awards recognizing individuals and organizations whose extraordinary contributions to science, mathematics, and technology education in North Carolina are helping to advance the mission of the SMT Center, according to the event program.

Nominations are accepted each fall. Recipients of the awards were honored at a Celebration of Science, Mathematics, and Technology on May 4.

The SMT Center “focuses on improving education as a means of providing all students in North Carolina with the knowledge and skills to have successful careers, be good citizens, and advance the economy of the state.”

The evening kicked off with a celebration of 120 outstanding STEM students “who have participated in highly competitive STEM focused activities statewide and nationally.”

Sam Houston, executive director of the SMT Center, said the students of the future will need to be independent thinkers and learners, thoughtful not thoughtless, and have the skills to figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do.

“The SMT Center also believes that STEM is more than just a focus on discrete content areas, it’s Strategies That Engage Minds® through hands-on active involvement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education that promotes essential cognitive skills for the 21st Century.”

SMT Center mission

The following videos were produced by the SMT Center for the awards celebration.

Student Leadership Award | Rachel Noble, Lenoir County Public Schools, presented by Tomika Altman, Wake County Public School System

Rachel Noble grew up on her family’s Christmas tree farm, and her interest in agriculture led her to Future Farmers of America (FFA), “the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture.”

“Ever since her freshman year, Rachel has been determined to be a leader in her organization and in her community. She loves people, and she loves to see people being their best self,” said Margo Harper, her agriculture teacher. 

Nobel’s innate ability to lead earned her the nickname “Madam President” among her peers. “She always tries to set the example by leading,” said Mason Jones, a student who works with her.

“I think I am very driven because of the generations before me, my ancestors, and how hard they worked and provided for their community, and I definitely want to carry on that legacy,” said Noble.

Informal Educator Award | Dr. Connie Locklear, Robeson County Public Schools, presented by Dr. Jeni Corn, N.C. Department of Public Instruction

Dr. Connie Locklear is the director of Indian Education for Robeson County Public Schools. “I remind students that our ancestors were involved in STEM before the acronym was ever thought of,” she said.

“She is very well known because of her drive to see all children to succeed in life,” said Rodney Hunt, president of the Indian Education Parent’s Advisory Committee.

“The goal is to provide them the opportunities that will help them see themselves
as a scientist, as an engineer.
We’ve got to train our children now, to prepare them for the jobs that are in the future.”

— Dr. Connie Locklear

“I’m so proud to be Native,” said Locklear, “and I’m trying to instill that level of pride in our students, by showing them ‘look at what your ancestors have accomplished, you are your ancestors wildest dream, and YOU can do whatever you want to do.'”

Outstanding 9-16 Educator | Kayla Varnell, Lenoir County Public Schools, presented by Dr. Jeff Cox, NC Community College System

Meet Kayla Varnell, a biology teacher at North Lenoir High School. “I think it all starts in relationship building,” she said.

“She makes everyone feel like they can succeed. She knows who needs that extra push and that comes from the building of relationships with her kids,” said Rhonda Greene, the principal at Varnell’s school.

Varnell sees herself as a facilitator of learning and encourages failure as a key part of the learning process, but she is also attuned to how her students are really doing.

“Really my heart led me back here to Lenoir County, not only to give back to my community but also I knew that this is what our kids needed,” Varnell said.

Outstanding Instructional Leader | Susan Miller-Hendrix, Public Schools of Robeson County, presented by Nakia Carson, McDowell County Schools

Susan Miller-Hendrix is the science supervisor in the Public Schools of Robeson County. You can find her driving the district’s STEM van, visiting classrooms and schools but also doing community outreach with “science on wheels.”

“If we want kids to be our future scientists, we’ve got to do hands on learning,” said Miller-Hendrix.

“I think that’s where Susan’s strength has been…. She saw all kids needing the access, said Phyllis King, a CTE teacher in the district. That led, for instance, to Miller-Hendrix writing and getting grants to fund robotics in 36 schools districtwide. Those types of experiences are central to creating the possibility for the “a-ha moment” for students.

For Miller-Hendrix, it’s all about “meeting (students) where they are but taking them where they need to go.”

SMT Champion | Mebane Rash, EducationNC, presented by Russ Campbell, Burroughs Wellcome Fund

“This work is not about us. It’s about the educators and the students they serve — these students that will go on to be the workers of tomorrow and these educators who are showing up in these polarized and politicized times. That is why we show up…to make sure that their voices are heard and they are seen,” said Rash.

“We have this incredible opportunity to go out across the state and be in all 115 districts and all 58 community colleges and really see the differences in leadership and see the differences that resources make,” she said. “And if we can make sure that people know public schools matter along the way and make sure that they remain important to this state moving forward, that will be a win.”

The video lifts up the leadership of Greene County Schools, where there is a STEM pathway from kindergarten through graduation.

Rash notes that this award would not have happened without the exemplary leadership of Caroline Parker, who covers STEM for EdNC.

Partnership Award | Center for Energy Education, presented by Dr. Patrick Miller, Central Carolina RESA

The Center for Energy Education is a nonprofit focused on renewable energy research, industry innovation, and workforce development, located in Roanoke Rapids on the site of the old Halifax County airport.

An aerial view of the Center contrasts state-of-the-art solar arrays with the former runways, and illustrates how the work of the Center brought this property back to life for the community.

Mozine Lowe is the executive director of the Center.

From training workers to build solar arrays to exposing students to careers in the industry to finding ways for rural communities to learn about renewable energy, the work of the Center serves as a demonstration of excellence in renewable energy and prompts economic growth.  

“We love a curious mind,” said Whitney Sessoms, the workforce education manager for the Center. “We are going to move the needle by bringing hope and bringing knowledge to the community.”

Gabriela Ramirez

Gabriela Ramirez is a graduate of the honors college at Appalachian State University, where she was in the 2020 cohort of Diversity Scholars.