First STEM teachers award winners announced

Recipients of this year's Minds Inspired STEM Awards were, from left, Von Ryan Abrantes, Lune Vermeire, Krista Finch and Jeff Szeryk. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

Teachers from Island Montessori and St. Ignatius High School were honoured Thursday night as the first recipients of the Minds Inspired STEM Teacher Award.

Sponsored by Dart, the award is meant to promote and recognise excellence in teaching in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths in Cayman schools. Lune Vermeire, a kindergarten teacher at Island Montessori, and Von Ryan Abrantes, a physics and science teacher at St. Ignatius, were the inaugural recipients of what is expected to be an annual award.

“STEM skills underpin jobs in almost every field,” said Pilar Bush, executive vice president for marketing at Dart Enterprises. “It matters to us, as the country’s largest investor and one of the largest employers, that our students are prepared.”

Glenda McTaggart, who oversees the Minds Inspired programme, said judges evaluated 12 nominees for the award, equally split between government and private schools.

“For the first year, we thought that was good,” McTaggart said, adding that she expects to see more candidates next year as the programme becomes better known.

She said teachers were evaluated on “using innovative teaching practices. Creating a learning environment that is highly engaging. Trying to instil that love of science and math in students.”

Vermeire was lauded for getting the school’s students, ages 2-6, excited about the world around them from a science standpoint. She regularly sends materials home, so students can continue working on school-introduced concepts at home. On weekends, she sometimes leads kayaking tours through sections of mangrove on Grand Cayman.

She said she tries to get her young students interested in science by making it tangible.

“I do a lot of hands-on,” she said, “working with baking soda and vinegar and making explosions, talking about the island itself and iguanas.”

The school also has a garden where students help grow things. Vermeire said she expected to use the $3,000 the school will get as part of her award to expand the garden. In addition to the school award, each individual received $1,000 and additional support to attend a STEM-oriented conference or class of their choosing.

Abrantes said he expects to use his school award money to improve the school’s robotics programme and establish a STEM centre.

Abrantes is leading St. Ignatius’ teams and advising those from other high schools who are competing in the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition, an international event that Cayman participated in last year for the first time. Nine teams will compete for the chance to represent Cayman in Dubai this fall.

McTaggart said Abrantes is known for getting students excited about physics, a subject many would rather avoid. In his four years at St. Ignatius, she said, the number of students achieving A-Level scores in physics on their annual exams has gone from three to 13.

“It’s very mind-blowing,” Abrantes said, of receiving the award. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be recognised, not only for myself, but for STEM and science in general. This might encourage more young kids in the Cayman Islands to pursue teaching and become STEM experts.”

McTaggart said the judges also decided to give two merit awards. Those went to Krista Finch and Jeff Szeryk, both of Cayman International School.

Education minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, who attended the event, said the Minds Inspired programme complements the efforts of the ministry in promoting STEM subjects. She said the new primary curriculum, which will be unveiled in August, will increase the emphasis on STEM.

“It’s important that these subjects get the time that’s needed,” she said.

Award winner Vermeire believes the awards will help get the word out.

“I think it’s important so people know about STEM,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t know about it. They don’t really focus too much on that.”

Once they do, she said, she expects her enthusiasm and that of her colleagues will rub off.

“Passion makes everything possible,” she said.

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