• Former McNeil Canyon educator looks to empower students — and teachers — in science education
By Christina Whiting
For the last 32 years, environmental and biological science teacher Sheryl Sotelo has been inspiring youth to discover the world around them. A sixth grade teacher at Homer’s McNeil Canyon School since 2007, Sotelo is now switching gears from teaching students to teaching teachers throughout the state.
“What has always been important to me in science education is empowering students to see that science is accessible,” she said.
Throughout her career, Sotelo has implemented project-based learning involving authentic experiences and experiential learning. From leading students on salmon stream quality monitoring, studying plankton or monitoring invasive species, Sotelo’s goal has been to help her students feel a connection to the natural world; to allow them to see the possibilities around them and help them realize all they can be.
Sotelo obtained dual degrees in teaching and special education, with an emphasis on science education. She met her husband Ed while the two were involved in experiential special education activities in Arizona.
“Taking students rock climbing and seeing the look of accomplishment on their faces when they got to the top of the rock wall was incredible,” Sotelo said. “I realized what a transformative experience a teacher can provide for students and what an important job teaching is.”
Sotelo was inspired to offer the same experiential learning to her classroom students. She taught in Arizona for seven years, and then in the remote Native Alaska communities of Gambell and Unalakleet for two years. Eventually, she, Ed and their daughter Jess moved onto the road system, where she taught in Soldotna and Cooper Landing. Nine years ago, the family moved to Homer, where she has been teaching at McNeil Canyon Elementary School ever since.
During her time at McNeil, Sotelo implemented numerous activities that are now a part of the school’s annual programs. These activities include a school-wide coast walk, which is co-organized by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. Students walk and clean an area of beach, where they act as citizen scientists and monitor a creek near the school for water quality. She also started “Bio Blitzes,” where visiting scientists share their knowledge and students find and document what is living around the schoolyard with the help of local science experts.
Sotelo said that, among her memorable teaching experiences, was a project in which she worked with students in both Cooper Landing and McNeil Canyon to rearticulate a brown bear skeleton. One of the biggest challenges she faced was creating diverse instruction that meets each student where they are in terms of learning.
“Anatomically, humans are all similar, but cognitively, we’re so different,” she said. “Strengths and abilities are varied, and one size does not fit all.”
Sotelo is currently on an Einstein Fellowship in Washington, DC. She is one of 25 teachers to take a leave of absence from their jobs, and spend 11 months placed at a government agency. The fellowship has two main goals for teachers: to contribute their classroom perspective to federal education policy and projects, and to develop learning in personal areas of interest.
Sotelo was especially excited to study a new field of education referred to as the “Maker Movement.” The movement encourages students to learn by inventing, designing and creating. Examples include creating electronic textiles, where conductive thread is sewn into clothing so it is responsive to sensors such as temperature or light. Other projects feature repurposing recycled materials, 3D printing, interactive circuit-building, computer coding, tinkering, innovative design and iterative problem-solving.
“The movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing,” Sotelo said. “Making is a way of bringing engineering or tinkering to young learners, but spans the age range of pre-kindergarten to gray.”
For Sotelo, the movement is exciting because it provides new ways to teach that are both engaging and creative.
“The learning is integrated across content areas and can bring children, hobbyists and professionals together in a celebration of critical thinking, innovation and personal expression,” she explained. “Making is fun, which should be sufficient, but the big idea about engaging children through tinkering is that it is a powerful way to learn.”
Sotelo had planned to return to McNeil School following the completion of her fellowship. However, during the fellowship, she discovered numerous programs and resources available to teachers and classrooms of which she was previously unaware. She said she then began to think about how she could best share this information with her fellow teachers.
Her grandson Gus just happened to be born during that same time.
Eager to create an opportunity to teach teachers, as well as spend time with her new grandson, Sotelo made the decision to retire from classroom teaching.
“Being at McNeil has been a really a powerful teaching experience,” she said. “The staff, students and parents have been incredible and I’ve felt like I was a learner, as well as a teacher.”
Sotelo plans to spend time with her family and be involved with educational outreach and professional development in an area known as STEM-C (science, technology, engineering, math and computer science). She is currently seeking funding to implement more Maker and STEM-C opportunities into elementary and middle schools statewide, as well as out-of-school programs.
“There are lots of new issues impacting the planet,” Sotelo said. “How students utilize the environment and the decisions they make as scientifically literate adults are more important than ever.”
Sotelo said she would also like to see policies that support educators, giving them the tools they need to do their jobs.
“Sometimes we think our best and brightest should be lawyers or doctors,” she said. “I think they should be in the classroom as teachers.”
According to Sotelo, teaching has been a privilege and a rewarding endeavor; she is grateful to her family for supporting her professional endeavors, school projects and fundraisers. And she is also grateful to her students, their families, her colleagues, local scientists and friends for enriching her life as an educator and as a person.
“I have loved my time as a classroom teacher and the opportunity to work with so many students,” she said. “I plan to continue to work in education; I can’t imagine not being involved.”
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