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Inaugural Noyce Scholars committed to teaching STEM

February 22, 2023

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When Saint Mary’s University junior Evelyn Sanchez started school in Melrose Park, Ill., near Chicago, her mother anticipated that her young daughter would cling to her anxiously, not wanting to head off into a classroom of strangers.

But instead of tears and trepidation, Evelyn barely looked back as she bounded into the classroom, excited to begin an adventure in learning. 

Evelyn’s career path was soon clear, and she began playing school with her stuffed animals, and even her grandparents, as her pupils.

It was her grandfather who encouraged her to teach mathematics specifically.

“My grandfather has always taught me the importance of education and why I should be thankful for every single lesson taught to me,” she said. “He grew up in Mexico, migrated to the United States and worked double shifts every single day to have a roof on top of our family and food on the table. He always wished for an education. He did not have the opportunity as he left school to help his family to pay bills.”

Her grandfather told Evelyn she deserved an education and the job of her dreams, but would need to work hard. “Un sueño tan grande mijita, solo échale ganas,” he would tell her, which translates to “A dream so big, all you have to do is give it all you’ve got.”

Likewise senior Simon Warmkagathje of rural St. Charles, Minn., has always wanted to teach, and throughout his life, others have encouraged him to go into teaching, recognizing the traits of a good educator in the outgoing and personable leader. Having seven younger siblings, he’s had lots of practice working with young people already.

For Warmkagathje, who grew up on his family farm, it’s about being outdoors. On campus, he’s the president and founder of the fishing club and vice president of the tri-beta biology honors society. It’s his goal to teach biology — sharing an understanding and appreciation of the world to future young students.

“My passion is teaching people how to pursue their dreams, no matter the circumstances,” he said. “For that reason, I believe education is the field in which I can make the biggest impact on my community.”

Warmkagathje and Sanchez are Saint Mary’s inaugural Noyce Scholars. 

This past year, the university was awarded a $1.18 million NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program grant in support of the university’s Inclusive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Teacher Education Pipeline (ISTEP) Project.

ISTEP is designed to increase the number of secondary STEM teachers from diverse backgrounds who are committed to teaching in high-need local educational agencies  in places like southeastern Minnesota — to help alleviate severe teacher shortages in the state, particularly in math and science.

For the next five years, this funding enables Saint Mary’s to provide scholarships and stipends to more than 20 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing teacher licensure in a STEM-related field.

Undergraduates, typically awarded scholarships their junior years, promise to teach for four years (two years per year of scholarship received) in a high need school.

Sanchez believes this opportunity gives her the chance to be a good role model.

“I am not ashamed to say I still struggle with math,” she said. “I want to show future generations that everyone can learn STEM. I also want to share my story on the importance of grit and perseverance. 

“I want to show my Mexican-American community that we can become STEM educators. I want to see more people like me, standing in front of the classroom,” she added. “And I want to show students who struggled with math and English growing up that they too can become an educator. My background, story, skin color, and the education I received as a child were not a disadvantage, but more an advantage and opportunity.”

Warmkagathje wants to be the kind of teacher who makes an impact on a student’s life — be the teacher students remember forever.

“To be named a Noyce scholar means such a great deal to me,” he said. “I think that finding STEM teachers to teach in the local area is important because there are not many of us out there. I see school districts in dire need of good teachers who will stick around, and I believe this program will support those who never thought they had the chance.

“This opportunity will help me lead a life of change and love. I cannot wait to help my future community grow in a positive way.”