Chamberlain High School's Carrie Cox named Outstanding Physical Science Teacher

Mar. 28—CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. — Growing up, Carrie Cox thoroughly enjoyed her time in the classroom, both in high school and in college. But she admits she didn't exactly expect to be teaching as a career.

But life can lead one in unexpected directions.

The Woonsocket native is now in her 10th year teaching science at Chamberlain High School and was recently announced as the recipient of the Outstanding Physical Science Teacher for the State of South Dakota at the annual South Dakota STEM Education Conference in Huron.

"I'm what they call a non-traditional teacher," Cox said. "When I came to Chamberlain 13 years ago, I followed my husband over here, there really weren't any positions. But there was a science position open, and at the time Deb Johnson was superintendent and asked if I would be interested in getting my teaching certificate."

Cox, 36, grew up around teachers, with her mother serving as an elementary school teacher in Woonsocket for 33 years and an aunt teaching at a colony school near Huron for more than 20, but she had no specific goals for becoming a teacher. She earned her masters degree in animal science and ruminant nutrition at South Dakota State University and had thoughts of pursuing her doctorate to pursue a career in research and perhaps teach at the collegiate level.

But after getting her teaching certificate and diving into the world of teaching high school science, she has now spent a decade guiding students through the worlds of chemistry, physical science, earth science and physics.

"I've been teaching ever since. I'm hooked," Cox.

Cox said her educational background is in research, and she tries to bring that aspect of study into her own classroom. She advises students who participate in science fairs and aims to bring real-world science issues into her lessons. She accompanies students on field trips to top-flight science outposts like the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, where scientists are studying big concepts on projects like the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

Taking advantage of those types of activities can be a way to open the eyes of students to a larger world, showing them that world-class scientific studies are taking place right in their home state.

"I really try to incorporate what's happening in the real world. I took a group of kids this fall out to the SURF, and that's so fun. Just seeing all the science happening there — we have science happening in South Dakota that (is being done) nowhere else in the United States," Cox said.

Inspiration is important in science, a subject that can be difficult to teach and a field in which more bright, enthusiastic students are needed, Cox said. Even as career opportunities in the sciences increase, Cox said it can be challenging fostering students who may be on the edge about pursuing it as a career.

She and other teachers at the Chamberlain School District work to buck that trend, cultivating new groups of students interested in pursuing nursing or other STEM-related careers. Groups like Health Occupations Students of America, which Cox said has 21 active student members in the district, help with that guidance.

For her classrooms, where she oversees about 120 students, creating an atmosphere of respect and enthusiasm are important goals, and she tries to start each lesson with a smile. She wants to bring out the same scientific curiosity that spurred her on during her days as a student.

"We're just not seeing kids as driven to search out a science career. To find those students looking to take that extra step, I feel like we need to push those kids and give them a drive and almost a fire. Oftentimes I feel that fire is missing," Cox said. "I try to enter my classroom every day with a smiling face and give it energy. I try to give them excitement."

Those kinds of efforts are part of what make Cox an excellent choice for the Outstanding Physical Science Teacher Award, according to Chad Ronish, an internship coordinator with the Sanford Underground Research Facility who nominated Cox for the recognition.

"This award reflects Carrie's commitment to student-centered learning, her content knowledge and her professionalism, all of which exemplify what it means to be an outstanding teacher," Ronish said in a statement. "She is continually working to improve her own knowledge and pedagogy through professional development. Carrie sets high standards in her classroom and works diligently to support her students so they can each reach those high standards. And when her students need concrete experiences to link their learning to the lives they are working toward, she provides access to the latest science and research by either taking her students to the science or bringing the research into her classroom."

Cox praised her fellow teachers and her administrators, including Justin Zajic, superintendent for the Chamberlain School District and Jeff Steckelberg, principal for Chamberlain High School, for helping foster an environment that benefits students of all stripes.

Zajic said Cox was an example of the hard work teachers in the district and around state put in to improve the educational experience of their students.

"Mrs. Carrie Cox is a teacher that is always on the lookout for engaging lessons and real-world connections for the content that she teaches. Students in her class not only gain an understanding of the content and concepts, they also understand the importance of STEM, science and constant inquiry into how the world works. The Chamberlain School District is lucky to have Mrs. Cox on staff," Zajic told the Mitchell Republic.

The need for more students looking to pursue careers in science, including science and math teachers and even substitute teachers, is as great as ever. When Ronish told Cox he had nominated her for the award, she noted that even though she loves attending them, she had not made plans to attend the STEM conference in Huron this year.

She had classes to teach, and with the district currently looking to add another science teacher and substitutes hard to come by, she was duty-bound to be there for her students.

"I can't come, I don't have a sub!" Cox laughed. "The teaching crisis that we have — we also have a sub crisis where we're just so short of help. I try not to take off if I can, I usually save my days for my kids because I have four young children under 9."

Cox said she plans to continue to mold young minds in the classroom and is also considering pursuing her doctorate at some point down the road.

Her career may have been an unexpected journey, but she knows other budding students and even adults looking at a career change can find the fulfillment and satisfaction she has by pursuing a career in science. That includes teaching, where she has found joy in interacting with young minds just opening themselves to a larger world.

The world needs those young minds, Cox said, and helping them along their paths is a reward in itself.

"It's really fun to have conversations with those young minds, and it can inspire you to keep going," Cox said. "You have those years to help those individuals form opinions. With everything kind of going around in our world right now, we really do need that science to help us not just with technology, but with medicine and computer science. We just need those students. Hopefully I'm helping and inspiring."