Educator with the students

Richmond Street School science teacher Dr. Phuong Uzoff was recently honored as one of six finalists in California for the President’s Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching—the nation’s highest honor for educators of these subjects.

Richmond Street School science teacher Dr. Phuong Uzoff was recently honored as one of six finalists in California for the President’s Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching (PAEMST)—the nation’s highest honor for educators of these subjects. A teacher for 15 years, Uzoff is the Science Lead Technology Teacher/Next Generation Science Standards Mentor at Richmond Street elementary. She teaches Project Lead the Way (PLTW) STEM curriculum and computer science for kindergarten through fifth grade within the El Segundo Unified School District. On March 17, 2022, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond made the official announcement of award finalists.

The California Department of Education partners with the California Mathematics Council and the California Association of Science Educators to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program. Each applicant must display subject mastery, appropriate use of instructional methods and strategies, lifelong learning, and leadership in education outside the classroom. Each candidate is also required to submit a 30-minute video lesson in support of their application.

“These teachers have persevered through the challenges of the past year and are prime examples of excellence in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math to their students,” Thurmond said. “Their incredible efforts inspire STEM and computer science students to think creatively and critically in the classroom in preparation for the challenges of tomorrow.”

Uzoff’s classroom at Richmond Street School, where she has taught for seven years, is an incubator for exploration and invention. Her passion for teaching is evident to all who work with her. When she talks about her students and instructional methods, her exuberance is palpable. She admits her students are her biggest inspiration. “I am sure it comes through that these kiddos add so much to my life! They make me a better person,” Uzoff says. “I try to be a better teacher and human being because of their excitement to learn and grow. I love that I leave each school day knowing that I grew a little with them!”

Some examples of the Project Lead the Way projects the kindergarten through fifth grade students work on include learning about design through structure and function where students execute the design process and explore how engineers influence their lives. This module completed by grades K-5 includes having students design paint brushes and then testing them for structure and function. Third grade students are exploring the science of flight by applying their knowledge and skills to design, build, and test an experimental model glider to explore forces that affect flight. Robotics and automation are being explored by fifth graders who are using Vex kits to build and test robots.

“Dr. Uzoff is a natural STEAM teacher. She consistently meets the needs of her students by providing transformative learning experiences and engaging students in real world learning,” said ESUSD Superintendent Melissa Moore. Uzoff exemplifies the Dimensions of Outstanding Teaching. She has mastered her content knowledge as a PLTW teacher and empowers students to discover their voices within and inspires them to reimagine how they see themselves. She regularly uses observation and formative assessment to monitor and improve student learning. She is a team player and teacher leader who has the mutual respect of peers, as well as school site and district administrators. She is a collaborator in learning who always seeks new knowledge and intentionally acquires new skills alongside her students. She has provided professional learning opportunities regarding promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion through science and STEM teaching and has presented at multiple California STEAM Symposiums.

“I believe Dr. Uzoff’s greatest contribution to the school are her efforts in creating meaningful collaborative lessons across grade levels and creating activities that allow her students to apply their new knowledge in significant ways,” said Dr. Moore. 

For example, Uzoff recently used her commitment to the environment to create and implement a school-wide campaign related to trash and the environment. As a result, she has improved students’ participation and performance in social emotional learning. One conservancy project for fourth grade included designing something new from repurposed items often thought of as trash. “One student created a unique, upcycled home décor item from things that otherwise would have been thrown away,” explained Uzoff. “He was concerned about people who are homeless and said, ‘he wanted to make sure to build something for the homeless to decorate their space.’” 

Fellow teachers at Richmond Street School are reporting that they are witnessing how students collaborate, discuss, and are applying critical thinking skills in class. “We have been teaching PLTW curriculum for six years now, and we can see that students are more comfortable with the ‘practice of science’ and experiencing trial and error,” explains Uzoff. “A lot of students are persevering through challenges, and they know how to give evidence and claims of why they feel a certain way or have different thinking about a problem they are trying to solve. They know they can try again and that is OK.”

The current fifth graders have studied the Project Lead the Way STEM curriculum since kindergarten. Uzoff says she loves seeing their growth and how they have applied what they learned in those six years in relation to STEM education. They have also learned soft skills that they will need as adults. The students have shown they know how to step back, analyze, and plan for best results. 

“Dr. Uzoff has established herself to be a master teacher in the classroom She has created and designed a program under Project Lead the Way that is engaging, creative, invokes critical thinking, and challenging for all students,” said Richmond Street School Principal Alice Lee. “She created a template for teachers to help them implement the new NGSS standards into units and lessons. She is intentional about the way she addresses students by calling them ‘scientists’ and ‘engineers.’ Her positivity and can-do attitude are infectious and appreciated.”

Uzoff earned her doctorate degree in learning technologies from Pepperdine University, a master’s degree in elementary education from Loyola Marymount University, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University.