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Fellowship Allowing Alumna Heidi Park to Realize Science Teaching Dream

August 17, 2012

By Terri Hughes-Lazzell, Marketing Manager

Heidi Park's path to realizing a dream of becoming a high school teacher took a road less traveled. She's pursuing a teaching degree as a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow, and may soon become a science teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. This came after she earned a bachelor's degree chemical engineering in 2005 from Rose-Hulman and a master's degree from Cornell University.

         Heidi Park

Heidi Park

The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) has invested $175,000 over five years to encourage Park and 33 others in this complex and challenging profession. She is currently a student teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and plans to earn her teaching credentials next spring from the University of Illinois-Chicago.  

"I hope to help all my students see their potential as scientists," she says.

As early as third grade, Park knew that she wanted to become a teacher. Yet when it came to choosing her major in college, she opted for chemical engineering in the hopes that "it would meld both my science and math skills." After Rose-Hulman and Cornell, she wasn't excited about a research career. Instead, her "academic success was closely tied to the passionate teachers I was fortunate to have throughout my life."

Park joins graduates of Harvard and Stanford who have left fledgling careers on Wall Street and academic research to make an impact in America's classrooms. Knowles Science Teaching Fellows ensure that high-caliber beginning teachers remain in the profession.

"We cannot improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education without recruiting and keeping excellent STEM teachers like Heidi in the profession," states Nicole Gillespie, KSTF's Director of Teaching Fellowships, in a news release. "She joins a growing cadre of exceptional KSTF teachers whose knowledge, commitment, and leadership are transforming math and science education from the inside."

Nationally, nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years; KSTF maintains a steady teacher retention rate of 95 percent over the five years of the fellowship. This comes at a time when the nation's economic well-being is tied closer than ever to students' success in STEM fields.

"Teacher turnover is a critical problem that's hurting our students and our communities, and costing taxpayers a great deal of money," says Gillespie. "Instead of investing in the costly cycle of constantly hiring and training new teachers, we need to invest in keeping the best of the best in the teaching profession by providing them with ongoing support and professional development."

As a teacher, Park hopes to encourage more young women in the Chicago Public School System to pursue STEM careers, because young women tend to "perceive themselves as being less skilled in these areas." She has volunteered with the Society of Women Engineers and is currently a volunteer at the Field Museum of Chicago as an exhibit docent.

Park's favorite teaching moment is "when a student finally understands how something works and then excitedly applies that new knowledge to something else that they know about the world." She hopes to teach in a multi-ethnic community. "Although teaching students with a diversity of backgrounds presents its own challenges, the resulting diversity of ideas in the classroom is invaluable both for students and me as a teacher," she says.

A part of that process is learning how to teach the material she knows. "If I just took my degrees in chemical engineering into the classroom, I don't believe I would be able to teach the students," she says. "I need to learn about how students learn. Today, there is more of a shift to help students and guide them to find the answers and develop positions. They learn because they do, not from a lecture."