SALT LAKE CITY — On June 11, Jim Larson finally got the news he had been waiting for: He was named from among the three state finalists to win the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Larson, who teaches middle school math and science at J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School, was chosen for the award in the science category. He applied for the award last fall and learned he was a finalist in September.
Last year’s winners were announced in April, so by the end May he was "obsessively" checking his email for news about the award, he said. When the notification finally arrived, "I did go outside and have a little moment. I’m not ashamed to admit that," he said.
Larson is among the 97 winners from throughout the United States and its territories who will attend an awards dinner and other festivities in Washington, D.C. later this month. The honor also includes a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation, to be used at the winners’ discretion.
For the award, each state is eligible to submit nominations. At the state level, Larson was up against his peers from the 142 public middle schools as well as other private schools. Vivian Shell, who teaches at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, won the math category.
"This is such a great accomplishment for our Catholic schools in Utah," said Cosgriff Principal Betsy Hunt. "We have teachers with such incredible dedication and expertise, and Jim Larson is a fine example of that. He offers a very solid core curriculum with a great sense of humor and non-stop extra support for students."
Hunt was among those who wrote letters of recommendation for Larson; the award application process required an extensive packet that included the letters, a narrative from the teacher and a 45-minute video of a classroom lesson.
The video, which was required to be submitted unedited, "was a little unnerving," Larson said.
He chose a lesson about weather and erosion for the videotape. The students were examining the loss of mass over time of rocks, using a rock tumbler to simulate natural erosion. During the videotaped lesson, they gathered additional data, "then we integrated our math and science together by plotting the loss of mass versus time," Larson said. "The kids were using their algebra skills to extrapolate and make predictions about how long it would take for a piece of sandstone, for example, to be reduced to sand grain size."
Integration of math and science was emphasized in the narrative that he submitted for the award, he said, adding that he tries to show his students that all subjects are interdependent. For example, scientists use language arts skills to communicate the results of their experiments.
Teaching at a smaller Catholic middle school affords him the "luxury" of teaching both math and science, as well as an understanding of his students’ subject mastery level, he said. "I try to tailor some of the science lessons to that. That’s a unique opportunity for Catholic school teachers in general."
Larson became a teacher after 21 years in the petroleum field. When the company he worked for sold, he and his wife decided to stay in the Salt Lake area rather than relocate.
The family has become "quite attached" to the Saint Ambrose Parish community and Cosgriff, which all three of the Larson children attended, he said. "This was more than just a school. It was our school and [accepting a teaching position there] was a chance to give back to our community."