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UTA alumna West receives 2018 UTeach Outstanding Alumnus Award

Jennifer West, left, receives the 2018 UTeach Alumnus Award from Paige Evans, president of the USEA executive board.
Jennifer West, left, receives the 2018 UTeach Alumnus Award from Paige Evans, president of the USEA executive board.

An alumna of The University of Texas at Arlington and the UTeach Arlington program has been honored for her outstanding efforts to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Jennifer West, who graduated from UTA in 2014 with a B.S. in Biology with a genetics option as well as a teaching certification through UTeach Arlington, received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the UTeach STEM Education Association (USEA) at the UTeach STEM Educators Conference, held June 28-29 in Austin.

West is the third person from UTA to receive awards from the USEA this summer. Greg Hale, co-director of UTeach Arlington and assistant dean of science, received the USEA 2018 Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award, while Sara Mate, a UTA senior in biology and UTeach Arlington student, received the top prize in the research poster competition. Both awards were presented at the 12th Annual UTeach National Conference in Austin in May.

“I know the USEA includes lots of alums from all over the country doing some really awesome things, so I almost couldn’t believe that I won the award,” West said.

UTeach Arlington, a science and mathematics secondary teacher preparation, began at UTA in 2010, and West was a member of its first graduating class. The program implements early and intensive field experiences for teacher candidates, and uses experienced Master Teachers as instructors, mentors and field experience coordinators.

“In the UTeach program, I found a rare set of people – science-people who are also ‘people’ people,” she said. “They took me in immediately, and I am so thankful. The community was amazing, the classes were challenging without making you hate them, and all of the UTeach faculty genuinely cared about you and probably knew you by name. It was such a great experience. When I got out into the teaching world, I realized that it was also excellent preparation – way better than a lot of recent grads from other places had.”

After graduation, West began her teaching career at Irving High School, a Title I school, along with six other new hires, including a fellow UTeach Arlington graduate. Title I schools are defined as campuses with a student population of at least 40 percent low-income. The very next year, two of those teachers had left, while she and her fellow UTeach graduate were promoted to subject heads – West in Chemistry, which she led for the past three years while teaching Advanced Placement (AP) and pre-AP Chemistry classes.

In the four years since she started at Irving High, West has been instrumental in recruiting many UTeach alumni to work on the campus, which currently employs 15 UTeach Arlington graduates.

In 2017, the Irving Independent School District Curriculum Department invited West to serve as a curriculum writer, having noted her leadership and ongoing work to create and share inquiry-based lessons. In this role, and as chemistry subject head, she has worked to increase inquiry-based teaching throughout the district. She spearheaded the project to rebuild the high school chemistry curriculum from scratch, embedding 5E cycles (engage, explore, explain, extend, evaluate) for each of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.

This past year, she ran professional development sessions for each of the 12 chemistry units, ensuring that each of the district’s teachers was comfortable conducting the labs, had a foundational understanding of the 5E process, and was ready to bring that knowledge into their classroom instruction.

“Jennifer is amazing. She connects with her students so well while also holding them to very high standards, and that is a tricky balancing act,” Hale said. “Her passion for chemistry and the craft of teaching are infectious, and that has made her a very effective teacher and recruiter for Irving ISD. They have attracted a substantial portion of our UTeach Arlington graduates to teach in their district, due in large part to Jennifer’s commitment to mentor our current UTeach students.”

 West was born and raised in Arlington and graduated from Sam Houston High School. She originally wanted to become a research scientist, concentrating in genetics. When she began taking college courses, though, she realized that working in a laboratory wasn’t the perfect fit for her. While taking a night class in Organic Chemistry II, she saw fellow students struggling with the material and was determined to help. She got her professor to agree to tell her the material that would be covered ahead of each lecture and organized pre-class study sessions.

“I’d talk about what people needed to know about what the professor was going to cover, and everyone would go into lecture more prepared to learn,” she said. “And I loved it! They started doing better in class, able to answer questions and work problems. Everyone who regularly attended my group passed the class, and I was so proud.”

Soon after, she joined the UTeach Arlington program and received a scholarship through UTA’s Noyce Teacher Scholarship program. The Noyce program, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides $10,000 awards to those who plan to complete secondary STEM teacher certification at UTA, among other qualifications.

West believes that everyone needs to understand how science works, because people are constantly being inundated with scientific claims and people disputing scientific claims.

“More and more, to be a functioning citizen of the world, people need to know how science works and how these claims can be made,” she said. “This isn’t just about training more people to go into STEM fields after school. This is about every person understanding the process of science, and how it works, and how valid a claim or a dispute might be.

“My students know that the emissions from nuclear reactions are harmful, but they can also do research to compare nuclear power plants to other types of power generation and make an educated decision about whether or not it would be something they wanted in their city. This is what is so important for all of our students – the ability to make scientifically informed decisions.”

Asked what she enjoys most about teaching chemistry, West says it’s helping remove students’ skepticism about science.

“Students come to me early in the year and say, ‘No offense, Miss, nothing on you, but I don’t like science,’ ” she says. “I smile and tell them they’re already a scientist. I love spending the year showing them that science is just a way of knowing things, and that they’ve been forming hypotheses about the world and then testing them their whole lives. Maybe in other classes they’ve had to sit in a desk and memorize experiments that other people did, and they didn’t like it. And that’s okay! But everyone is a scientist.”