Williamsburg teacher earns national math and science award

  • John Heffernan of Conway, a teacher at the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, recently won the presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest teaching award in the kindergarten to sixth grade category. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • John Heffernan of the Anne T. Dunphy School earned a national award for his teaching. John Heffernan of the Anne T. Dunphy School earned a national award for his teaching.

  • Heffernan. John Heffernan.—John Heffernan

  • Heffernan. John Heffernan.—John Heffernan

  • John Heffernan, center, recipient of the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Photo contributed by John Heffernan. John Heffernan, center, recipient of the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Photo contributed by John Heffernan.

  • Heffernan. John Heffernan.—John Heffernan

  • Heffernan. John Heffernan.—John Heffernan

For the Gazette
Published: 9/19/2016 12:33:17 AM

CONWAY — John Heffernan, technology and enrichment teacher at the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, is changing how people view education by integrating innovative hands-on teaching methods in the classroom.

“I’m a believer in active learning,” Heffernan said Friday from his home in Conway. “That means kids learn best when they’re really involved — one of those is hands-on learning.”

His efforts in the district earned Heffernan the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest teaching award in the kindergarten to sixth grade category. He said he received the award in Washington D.C. with his wife, Dawn, and son, Aidan, a 5th grader at the Conway Grammar School.

Heffernan uses technology such as robots and software programs including Explain Everything, an interactive virtual white board tool, to immerse students into subjects such as math and physics.

Another example of Heffernan’s teaching method is asking students to create YouTube videos explaining how to do math problems. Along with teaching math and technology, he helps fellow teachers integrate technology into the classroom.

Critical thinking

According to a statement from the White House, winners of the award are “selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and educators following an initial selection process at the state level.”

The statement said the honor is part of a broader initiative to encourage students’ “critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

“If you look at preschool and kindergarten kids, they’re natural builders,” Heffernan said. “They’re building sandcastles, blocks, all sorts of creative activities. Then in first grade, all those things are taken out.”

It isn’t till high school, Heffernan continued, that students are given hands-on opportunities again.

To help bridge the gap and provide engineering opportunities to kids at a younger age, Heffernan developed an “elementary engineering” robotics program and founded a Makerspace chapter at the Williamsburg school with grant money, where Heffernan said “kids are building circuits and making claymation movies.”

According to Makerspace’s website, “to describe them simply, makerspaces are community centers with tools.”

In his teaching, Heffernan draws from bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tufts University in electrical engineering. Prior to moving into the Williamsburg school district, Heffernan taught third-grade in Amherst for seven years. Before that, he worked as a software engineer and an educational technology consultant.

He is also the author of “Elementary Engineering: Sustaining the Natural Engineering Instincts of Children.” Currently, he’s completing a doctorate in science, technology, education and math at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The award, sponsored by the White House and the Office of Science and Technology, is given yearly to two teachers from each state. Karen Schweitzer of Montague, who also teaches at the Anne T. Dunphy School, was the second recipient.

The award came with $10,000, with which Heffernan said he plans to purchase a new 3D printer for the school.

You can reach Andy Castillo at: acastillo@recorder.com.

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo




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