Schoonover was nominated for the award due to his leadership in establishing the Physics First science curriculum at his school. The program reverses the typical curriculum by starting freshmen with Physics and having them take biology in grade 11. This allows seniors more flexibility and has doubled the number of students taking advanced placement science classes. He has also developed programs to enhance the use of technology in the classroom, and has piloted a National Science Foundation program using computer models to teach the science of atoms and molecules.
He has also taught several physics classes to high school physics teachers as Rhode Island has greatly expanded the number of Physics First schools, and he has taught summer physics courses at UMass Dartmouth for the past 10 years.
"I am fortunate to have been surrounded by excellent teachers and supportive administrations since becoming a teacher," Schoonover said. " But, before that, it was my education at UMass Dartmouth, in earning my BS and MS degrees in physics, that shaped the science teacher I have become.''
Saying he "learned from the best,'' he cited professors Alan Hirshfeld, Paul Ukleja, John Russell, Zvi Bar Yam, John Dowd, JP Hsu, and Wolf Kern as teachers and mentors who challenged and inspired him. They "all gave me those problem solving, critical thinking, laboratory, and questioning skills that are so important in science."
Dr. Hirshfeld, a professor in the Physics Department and award-winning author of several highly acclaimed books and essays that seek to popularize science, said, "Jeff's aptitude and enthusiasm for physics were clearly evident, already as an undergraduate. In my 30 years as a physics instructor, he was the best student I ever taught whose career aspiration was teaching. I'm thrilled that his commitment to quality teaching has been recognized on the national stage."
Ronald Kahn of the East Bay Educational Collaborative in Warren, RI, and a 1994 winner of the award, called Schoonover a, "remarkable exemplary, engaging, and rare high school physics teacher."
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to the best pre-college-level science and mathematics teachers from across the country. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level. Each year the award alternates between mathematics and science teachers teaching Kindergarten through 6th grade, and those teaching 7th through 12th grades. This year it goes to teachers teaching 7th through 12th grades.
Winners of this Presidential honor receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. They also receive an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress and science agency leaders.
Last spring at the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama called on all Americans to join the effort to elevate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education as a national priority. The President's public-private "Educate to Innovate" initiative, which was launched last fall, has attracted more than $500 million in donations and in-kind support from corporations, philanthropies, service organizations, and others to help inspire students to pursue studies and careers in math and science. Last month, Cabinet officials and others in the Federal government answered the President's call to action by volunteering in local classrooms as part of National Lab Day, a nationwide initiative to build local communities of support for teachers and students studying mathematics and science.
"Science and technology have long been at the core of America's strength and competitiveness, and the scientists and engineers who have led America on its remarkable path to success share something very precious: science and math teachers who brought these critical subjects to life," said President Obama. "Today we honor some of the best of these teachers and thank them for their dedication. They are inspirations not just to their students, but to the Nation and the world."