President Barack Obama named Ray Smola as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honor for math and science teachers. Smola has been a physics teacher at Heidelberg High School in Germany for the past eight years and is among the 103 recipients of the award. He has also taught at Mannheim Middle School, Kubasaki High School in Okinawa, Japan (all for the Department of Defense Education Activity), and Stephenville High School in Texas. Smola currently teaches classes in Chemistry, Physics, Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry, AP Physics B, and AP Physics C. He is active on the board of directors for both the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and the Academic Bowl.
Smola is known for his stimulating teaching style and insistence on high student achievement in science. He is very proud that four of his students have been chosen for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Research Summer Institute in the past five years. He has been very active in developing a Moodle online component to his classes and using it to augment a Europe-wide science competition. He has co-authored a chemistry laboratory book, Investigating Chemistry through Inquiry.
Smola has a B.S. in Chemistry from Texas Tech University and an M.A. in Physics Education from the University of Virginia. He is certified to teach middle school and high school science and mathematics in Texas and for the Department of Defense Education Activity. He is a 1984 graduate of Sweetwater High School and is the son of Dr. Jerry and Joan Smola of Sweetwater.
"This award was a huge surprise to me. It obviously could have been given to many other worthy teachers. I have met many of these science teachers at workshops and trainings and learned much from listening to them," said Smola. "I feel that this award is an external justification for a decision I made 20 years ago to go from chemistry into teaching. I was not a very effective communicator, and my friends surely had their doubts. But it seems that an almost total lack of talent can be overcome by years of enthusiasm and persistent attempts to improve," he added.
Each year, the best pre-college-level math and science teachers from across the nation are selected for the award, a White House release said. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process conducted at the state or activity level.
Clarence Bostic, headquarters science coordinator at the school, called Smola an “amazing” teacher, saying he’s very deserving of the top honor.
"My decision to teach has been wholly satisfying to me. I get to experiment on students every day, discussing ideas, watching them learn things I teach and things I don’t. Our students come from all over the world, with a tremendous variety of experiences. I will never forget the Bulgarian girl, who arrived with only a few words in English and was fluent by the end of her first year. Or the Norwegian-born student whose family suddenly couldn’t pay the tuition, but didn’t have to after the community raised money for them," Smola said. "This variety is very interesting to me, but it also makes teaching challenging, because many of the students arrive with gaps in their knowledge base, having moved from different systems. We teachers must move carefully from one topic to another and frequently test students’ understandings. Of course, many of these students eventually leave and fan out across the world. It is really great to hear from them on Facebook or e-mail years later."
Smola makes physics accessible to students by using a combination of student working groups, laptops, whiteboards, experiments and student-facilitated questions, Bostic said. Smola serves as a guide in the classroom, he added, rather than act as a lecturer from up front. Through the exchange facilitated by small groups, students are able to absorb information, present it to peers and develop a common understanding, Bostic explained.
“Ray Smola’s personality and methodology in concert made something that seemed like a complex concept approachable,” Bostic said.
"My students at Heidelberg High School have responded well to my high expectations. Many of them are so bright that they really haven’t been challenged in a while. I try to get them doing experiments right away, daring them to prove something and getting them to doubt the easy answers. Our department uses the Vernier sensors and software pretty heavily to get quick and accurate data that the students can graph and turn into conclusions. I am also a big Moodle (Course Management System) fan and use it to deliver individualized homework assignments and other content online. The students seem to like the technology and master it so quickly. My students also use low-tech whiteboards and dry erase markers pretty effectively, too. These are good tools and really help set up the environment so students can succeed. It makes me very happy to see students totally absorbed in a problem or experiment, so that I am free to walk around and discuss their ideas."
Smola was nominated by Rick Renninger, Heidelberg’s assistant principal, Bostic noted.
For his accomplishment, Smola will receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at his discretion, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony in which Smola had the chance to meet President Barack Obama. The trip included several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress and science agency leaders.
Since 1983, more than 4,000 teachers have been recognized for their contributions to mathematics and science education, according to the presidential awards website.
Smola said that while attending Sweetwater High School, he was inspired by Coach David Mayes, Anne Spitler and most especially Judith Brentz.