Central Michigan University spring 2014 graduate Michelle Vanhala of Big Rapids, Michigan, was shocked and honored to learn that she won a Knowles Science Teaching Fellowship. A recipient of one of 32 national awards for science, technology, engineering and math teachers, Vanhala will begin her high school teaching career with $30,000 for classroom supplies and educational advancement opportunities over the next five years.
Janet H. and C. Harry Knowles established the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation in 1999 to increase the number of high school STEM teachers and ultimately improve math and science education in the United States. There are now more than 248 teaching fellows and senior fellows across 39 states.
Vanhala, who earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and majored in both integrated sciences and English, is one of only three Michigan students to apply for and win the award this year. Michigan State University and the University of Michigan also had winners.
Vanhala faced some tough competition.
“When I was interviewing, I was up against teachers with a year of experience, many graduate students from Ivy League schools and Peace Corps members,” said Vanhala, who sat between two graduate students from Harvard at a finalists’ dinner in Philadelphia.
Vanhala’s extracurricular activities at CMU may have helped set her apart. As an undergraduate, she worked with two other students to design and conduct a research project to identify the traits of high school teachers considered to have a transformative impact on their former students. Those defining characteristics stuck with her.
Working with Phame Camarena, director of the Honors Program, Vanhala interviewed 19 high school teachers.
“We discovered four things that distinguished these teachers as being transformative,” Vanhala said. “The first was to form a relationship with students. Several teachers talked about challenging students academically, holding them to high standards. Along with that, these teachers pushed students to think both critically and creatively. The fourth trait was relevance, showing how the subject matter is relevant to the students’ lives.”
For Camarena, who worked with Vanhala going back to her first classes in the honors program her freshman year, the personal relationship building seems to be the linchpin in successful teaching. “There were other attitudes and actions that defined this group, but it was all built on the explicit effort of the teachers to connect with each student on a personal level,” he said.
Camarena sees Vanhala embodying the selfless qualities that make for a great teacher. “Michelle is deeply committed to making learning relevant to the lives of students,” he said. “Beyond memorizing the elements of the periodic table or a formula for a chemistry test, she recognizes that students have to believe that what they are learning matters to their everyday lives.”
Vanhala made the most of her CMU days. “I had so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had at other schools,” said Vanhala, who did three study abroad trips in London, China and Africa and gained leadership experience from student government, clubs and volunteerism.
“I believe Michelle’s story is a reminder of how much stronger our graduates can be when they stretch themselves outside of the classroom and connect those lessons with their academic training,” Camarena said.
Vanhala, who graduated from CMU May 10 and received an Academic Excellence Award from the Honors Program, already has one job offer in hand. With the prestigious Knowles Fellowship now on her resume, many more offers should follow.