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Graduate Named Presidential Award-Winner

COLONIE, N.Y. (Sept. 14, 2009) -- A SUNY Plattsburgh alumnus was recently named a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.Jim Brown G'92 was one of fewer than a 100 kindergarten- through sixth-grade teachers nationwide to receive the honor this year.

Jim Brown with students he taught in the Galapagos IslandsBrown, a sixth grade science and math teacher at Sand Creek Middle School in Colonie, N.Y., will receive his award in a White House ceremony this fall along with SUNY Plattsburgh Biology Professor Nancy Elwess, who is being honored with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. (Visit www.plattsburgh.edu/about/profiles/faculty/elwess.php for more information on Elwess and her award.)

According to Brown, his experience with math education at SUNY Plattsburgh changed the way he understood and now teaches the subject.

Instead of just having Brown teach formulas, one of his professors taught him to use manipulatives to explain the concepts behind mathematical equations. According to Brown, this is something that isn't generally done with students beyond the primary grades but something that his professor believed was important.

To teach the importance of these tools, the professor asked his students to solve the Pythagorean Theorem using squares. Being forced to do so allowed Brown to understand the concepts behind the theorem in a way that he never had before.

"Until I went to learn about teaching math, I couldn't explain the concept to anybody," said Brown.

Now Brown uses a similar approach in teaching his students.

For instance, at one point in his career, he and his fellow teachers discovered that their students were getting questions about pi wrong on their standardized tests.

"We were looking at this saying, 'Wow, we taught this millions of times. How could they possibly get this wrong?'" said Brown.

As a result, he started to set his lessons up so that his students would discover the concept behind pi themselves. He gave them bicycle wheels of different sizes and had them measure both the circumference and the diameter. Then, they entered the numbers into a spreadsheet. The last column on the spreadsheet compared the ratio between the diameters and the circumference.

"It wasn't labeled," he said. "And I didn't tell them what it was, but I knew it would happen eventually -- and eventually it did. Somebody said, 'Hey, all of the numbers are three point something.' That was an 'aha' moment, and I stopped and said, 'Okay, let's talk about that.'"

Brown also makes a point of saying 'yes' to his students, helping them think outside the box.

"Kids start running into the classroom saying, 'Oh, I have an idea,' and some of them are really impractical," he said. "And I just tell them, 'That sounds good.' Then I prompt them to think about how to implement it. Then they'll walk in the next day and say, 'We can't do that because ...'"

"A lot of times kids are told 'no,' and a lot of times 'no' does not mean 'No, you can't do it,' but 'No, from an adult's perspective, that's not practical. Don't waste your time,'" said Brown. "But I think a lot of times that's where the learning takes place."

This sort of work has led Brown's students to embark on a number of successful projects, including building a soap box derby car that made it to a national competition; writing and receiving a grant for the school to install electronic handless water faucets to prevent students from wasting water; and starting bicycle recycling programs.

"Jim is a consummate professional," said David Perry, Sand Creek Middle School principal, in a phone interview. "Someone who you would want teaching your own children. He comes to school with an energy and passion every day and instills it in his students and the other professionals in the building. It is infectious. As they see Jim is doing something, his colleagues are supportive and want to try those things in their classroom as well."

In this way, said Perry, Brown's work does not just impact his own students, but all of the students who attend the school.

"I couldn't be more proud of Jim," added Perry. "We feel the award is well deserved."

The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to the best pre-college-level science and math teachers from across the country. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and educators, following an initial selection process done at the state level. Each year the award alternates, going either to science and math teachers in grades K through 6 (as it is this year) or to those teaching in grades 7 through 12.

"There is no higher calling than furthering the educational advancement of our nation's young people and encouraging and inspiring our next generation of leaders," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "These awards represent a heartfelt salute of appreciation to a remarkable group of individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to helping others and in doing so have helped us all."

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