They Taught Me by Letting Me Wonder

By Dr. Nafeesa H. Owens, Ph.D., Program Director/PAEMST Program Lead, Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, National Science Foundation*

Today we celebrate the story of Marizza Bailey, who was honored last year by the White House with one of its Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

Marizza Bailey (top right), with her grandmother Luz Mendizabal, her mother, and her daughter, in a newspaper clipping from 1997, when Luz was given an award by Lima, Peru, for her advancement of education in the city.

When Marizza Bailey was 12, her grandmother, Luz Mendizabal, came to live with her in California. Born in Peru, Luz put herself through graduate school to earn a doctorate degree in Mathematics Education, all while teaching full-time and raising eight children. She brought many things with her when she arrived in California: her voracious appetite for learning, her vast knowledge of mathematics, history and literature, but what Marizza appreciated most were the questions. “Why do you think that?” “What makes you say that?” “How do you know that?” A conversation with Luz was a series of questions and answers that stimulated critical thinking.

With a grandmother who was a mathematics teacher and who inspired thoughtful dialogue with her children and grandchildren, it’s no wonder that Marizza followed Luz’s footsteps and became a mathematics educator, as did Marizza’s mother before her. For this family, mathematics was not so much a career or a school subject, but a way of viewing and interpreting the world. Marizza says of her family, “They taught me by letting me wonder and allowing me to draw my own conclusions.”

When Marizza entered the classroom as an educator, she recognized the need for making mathematics relevant and relatable to students who didn’t share her specialized background. To do this, Marizza used materials from the American Mathematical Society (AMS) to supplement her curriculum. For students in her high school courses, this started with Mathematical Moments (posters that demonstrate an appreciation and understanding of the role mathematics plays in modern society). By printing out the classroom posters and having students listen to the accompanying podcasts, Marizza generated excitement around mathematical ideas that touched on real-life concepts. For older students who are considering studying mathematics in college, she enticed them with some of the more accessible articles in the Bulletin of the AMS. Last year, she took a group of students to the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Seattle, where they were able to interact with a host of professional mathematicians.

What Went Right
As an educator at BASIS Scottsdale, a charter school in Arizona, Marizza encountered a rare and enviable problem: what do you do with students who finish calculus and are hungry for more mathematics? This led her to create the course Introduction to Categories, the first of many unique post-calculus classes that Marizza would develop and teach to help meet her students’ desire for more advanced-level mathematics courses.

Each year, Marizza keeps a teaching journal where she records “what went right” and “what went wrong.” When she began teaching Introduction to Categories, typically a college-level course, she taught it in a typically college-level way: through lecture. This method quickly found itself in the “what went wrong” section of her journal. She opened the classroom up to more active learning, peer interaction, and discovery-centered lessons – the same strategies that had endeared her to mathematics as a child, learning from her grandmother – to vastly improved results. The success of Introduction to Categories allowed Marizza to develop more post-calculus courses: Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra, History of Mathematics, and Complex Analysis.

Exceptional STEM Teachers Deserve to Be Recognized

Marizza posing with former NSF Assistant Director of Education and Human Resources (and current NSF Acting Chief Operating Officer) Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy and former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dr. John Holdren, after receiving the PAEMST award.

Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has the honor of recognizing up to 108 teachers for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). In 2015, Marizza Bailey was one of those educators.

NSF invited Marizza to Washington, D.C., for the National Recognition Event, which included two days of professional development opportunities, an awards ceremony featuring national leaders in STEM education policy and a visit to the White House. She also received a certificate signed by the President of the United States (U.S.), and a $10,000 award from NSF.

Marizza and fellow Presidential Awardee Michael Towne, at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., during the 2016 PAEMST National Recognition Event.

Marizza and the majority of Presidential Awardees say that this wasn’t the main perk of being an awardee. Rather, it was the connections they were able to make with educators and thought-leaders from across the country.  At the recognition event, Marizza was able to network with peers from all 50 states and leading professional development facilitators. She also had the chance to meet a personal hero: Vi Hart, a mathematical YouTuber, who inspires many of her own students. Forging lasting relationships is inevitable when so many mathematics enthusiasts are brought together for a week of celebrating each other and the profession they love.

NSF and the PAEMST team believe that exceptional STEM teachers like Marizza deserve to be recognized. PAEMST are the nation’s highest honors for K-12 STEM teaching, and more than 4,700 teachers have received the award since the program began in 1983. Nominations and applications for K-6th grade teachers open this fall at

*The National Science Foundation administers the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) on behalf of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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