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Two Bozeman School District teachers have been recognized as finalists for a prestigious national teaching award in math and science.

Lisa Moellenkamp, a kindergarten teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, and Christine O’Shea, a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Hyalite Elementary School, were among five Montana finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The award is considered one of the highest honors for U.S. educators teaching math and science in kindergarten through 12th grades.

Moellenkamp has taught kindergarten at Longfellow for 11 years and has worked in education for about 25 years. O’Shea has taught for 14 years after changing careers from computer publishing.

Both teachers said they were humbled and surprised by the award. O’Shea said the application process started last year and she had almost forgotten about it.

“I honestly couldn’t really accept the award without giving praise to the excellent work we’ve all done. It wouldn’t be possible without (her fellow teachers),” Moellenkamp said. “I can’t accept it alone.”

The teachers, who both teach science, said they love seeing the excitement on their students’ faces when they learn.

“The trick is to have them believe they truly are scientists and engineers and they are exploring things that can make a difference. And that’s a reality,” Moellenkamp said.

O’Shea said she’s always had a passion for science and even wanted to be an astronaut as a young kid.

“I love seeing kids discover something, when they have that ‘aha’ moment, and they’re so eager and enthusiastic to learn,” she said. “It’s just fun for me to teach them more about science and to question things.”

One of her favorite lessons to teach is about ecosystems, how everything is interrelated and one thing can throw off the whole ecosystem. She said she uses Yellowstone National Park and the reintroduction of wolves into its ecosystem as an example for her students.

One of the projects Moellenkamp typically does with her students involves identifying forces of pushes and pulls to build models that move heavy rocks. She said students become involved because the scenario involves a little boy who’s getting a swing set in the backyard and the students are supposed to help him.

Through the teamwork of different projects, Moellenkamp said the students learn to give peer reviews and embrace collaborating with others. She said it’s not necessarily about the specific content area but applying what they learn to tackle challenges and work together.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the world of education, both teachers have continued to create engaging and fun lessons for their students.

O’Shea said her students and fellow teachers learned how to use Canvas, the district’s learning management system, quickly. After a few weeks, she said her class got in a rhythm. The elementary schools are now back to five days of in-person learning, and O’Shea said any students in quarantine tune in remotely.

“Should we have to do it again, it would be much more seamless,” she said of having to go remote.

Moellenkamp, who is a teacher with the Bozeman Online School this year, said she has modified her in-person projects so students can complete them at home, using what they have around them. Earlier this year, she had her students do a scavenger hunt for different kinds of leaves they could find outside.

“For me this year, I feel like teaching online is challenging but in a way that is fun,” she said. “I just try to find new ways to excite them and get them engaged.”

Moellenkamp and O’Shea were finalists alongside fellow Montana teachers Christina Pavlovich of Livingston, Angel Zickefoose of Billings and Shianne Schmidt of Olney. The five teachers were selected by a committee of state science and math teachers from a pool of 23 applicants across the state.

The application process for the state finalists included video footage of classroom lessons, written descriptions of their teaching methods and results of student achievement.

The five Montana finalists will be submitted to the national group where a panel of mathematicians and scientists will review the submissions from around the country. The National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House administers the award, according to the organization.

Hyalite Principal Mike Van Vuren said O’Shea was an example of a life-long learner for her students by engaging in professional development that challenges her to reflect on her own teaching.

“She builds caring and meaningful relationships with her students, which in turn creates a very safe learning environment,” he said in an emailed response to the Chronicle.

Both teachers said their focus and inspiration remains the students they educate each day.

“I feel like (children) have a voice and should have a voice,” Moellenkamp said. “They have a lot to contribute to the world, and I think that can be understated.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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