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Local Teacher Earns National Math and Science Award

Courtesy of Orange County Public Schools

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Deborah Wasylik (right) of Dr. Phillips High

Deborah Wasylik, a biology teacher at Dr. Phillips High in Orlando, has been named a winner of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the highest honor the government awards to classroom teachers of mathematics and science.

It has been a bittersweet year for the seven-year teaching veteran. The same week she found out she was one of three finalists from Florida for the award was also the week she learned that she had breast cancer. "As I went through all the chemotherapy and surgery — and I'm still in chemotherapy – it was nice to know there was a possibility that I might get that ultimate award, so it was a nice bit of hope for me to have," she said.

Only one science teacher from each state is selected for the award by a national panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators. The White House, working in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, which administers the award, provides each winner with a Presidential Citation, a check for $10,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C. Wasylik was unable to make the trip to Washington this year because of her cancer treatments.

Susan Averill, assistant principal of Dr. Phillips, nominated Wasylik for the prestigious award. "After a few minutes in Deb's classroom, any observer knows two things that all of her students know--she likes teenagers and she is passionate about teaching," said Averill. "Her enthusiasm, expertise and creativity provide students with a learning environment that doesn't permit failure or apathy. We're so fortunate to have Deb as a part of the Dr. Phillips High School community."

Wasylik describes her teaching style as "energetic and creative." Recently her biology students built giant strands of DNA with pool Funoodles, used chromosome models made of socks to learn cell division and sang the "DNA Song" to help them remember important facts. "I think because I'm so enthusiastic and excited about science, students are pulled along with me to discover why science is such an interesting thing to learn," she said.

Her enthusiasm not only captivates students, but fellow educators as well. Dr. Phillips High Assistant Principal Clint Lott recalled a time when he was supposed to be conducting a classroom observation of Wasylik, but became too immersed in the lesson: "I practically forgot that I was observing. I wanted to participate. It wasn't the first time I sat in her class and wished I was one of her students."

Wasylik entered education after spending 20 years in business, so she feels that some of her success is due to her unique perspective. Although she has only been teaching for seven years, her list of awards and accomplishments keeps growing. She recently earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; was named Bright House Networks Star Teacher for 2003 for her unit on cells; and received the top reading and technology award for 2003 from the International Reading Association for an investigative unit she developed in which students solved a mock murder.

Dr. Phillips High Principal Gene Trochinski is just relieved that Wasylik is back in the classroom after returning from medical leave. "She still misses Fridays because chemo treatments are necessary but she is a phenomenal teacher," he said. "She is so popular among students and parents because she makes science interesting and relevant."