Passion for science rewarded

Steamboat teacher finalist for presidential award


— The botanical drawing above Cindy Gay's desk at Steamboat Springs High School could easily be overlooked. She is a biology teacher after all.

But the drawing becomes more interesting when you find out that Gay is the artist who created it. Gay is a science fanatic, no doubt, but she also loves art. In fact, she almost chose a career in art before following her true calling.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," Gay said. "I would coerce my younger brother into being my student. The science part came from a love of being outdoors. I can't believe they pay me to do this!"

Gay, who has been teaching at the high school for two years, has been selected as one of two finalists for the Colorado Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. That means that Gay also is a finalist for the national-level presidential award. Gay was nominated by several colleagues who are members of a science organization to which she also belongs.

The presidential honor is just icing on the cake for Gay, though. To her, the real goods are found in the classroom.

Gay was born and raised in Glenwood Springs and received her bachelor's degree in environmental conservation and biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She returned to CU to do graduate work and then taught at Eaglecrest High School in the Denver metro area. Later, she and her family moved to Steamboat where she taught at Colorado Mountain College.

"I wanted to be a university professor, but teaching was only one-third of the emphasis," she said of a job that also demands writing and research. "What you do as a professor wasn't enough teaching for me."

Simply, Gay wanted to be in the classroom more, which is why she's now at Steamboat High.

The application for the presidential award allowed Gay to do a little soul-searching on how she approaches teaching science.

"It was really good for me to do those self-reflective pieces," she said. "I know in my heart what I believe, but it is enormously powerful for me to write them down."

She had to answer what her philosophy of exemplary science teaching was and, because Gay simply loves science, she wrote about it enthusiastically.

"It's easy to be passionate about something that's as awe-inspiring as nature," she said. "What's seemingly so complex is really elegant and simple."

The second part of the award application asked how she assesses students how she knows they are understanding what she's teaching. Gay said she lets students fail without being penalized, allowing them to start over.

"It's not about being able to just regurgitate the facts," she said. "It's about owning the knowledge and using it in new and different ways."

Gay cited as examples her "Density Derby" and the Yampa Valley Community Mapping Project, a joint effort between the Orton Foundation and the Colorado Division of Wildlife that uses freshman students to create a wildlife management plan. Students are given problems and challenged to use what they know to solve them.

Gay said everyone grows up being a curious scientist, just ask anyone who has children. The challenge is making older students regain that curiosity.

"The ultimate challenge, especially in older children, is re-igniting that passion in them," she said.

If she selected for the presidential award for Colorado, which will be determined next spring, Gay and the district will receive a $7,500 award to be used to improve the science program. Gay then will get the chance to travel to Washington, D.C., meet the president and spend time talking about science with people who care.

"You get to talk to people all over the country and they want to know what you think about science," she said. "You get to have a voice at the national level."

Gay was honored by the nomination, but doesn't take all the credit, saying she has learned from the teachers she works with.

"I've gained from all those people," she said. "How did I get to be singled out?"

To reach Jennifer Bartlett call 871-4204 or e-mail


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