Local Educator Honoured with National Teaching Excellence Award in STEM

Above from left: Students Joshua and Ethan Keller and Four Winds STEAM Academy teacher Christina Dafoe pose with Ethan’s provincial award-winning amphibious robot. – Stephen Dafoe Photo

by Stephen Dafoe

Christina Dafoe at the National Certificate of Excellence. – Christina Dafoe Photo

Christina Dafoe, a dedicated teacher at Four Winds Public School in Morinville, has received the prestigious National Certificate of Excellence for Teaching Excellence in STEM. This award, part of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, recognized her innovative contributions to education, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Sixty-nine of Canada’s top educators have received this year’s Prime Minister’s Award. Of those, sixteen teachers received excellence. Five received awards for Excellence in Early Childhood Education and eight for Excellence in Teaching. However, Dafoe was one of only two in the country to receive the Prime Minister Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM.

Dafoe learned of her award nomination from her principal and vice principal, and then she got a call from the federal government.

“My principal told me he was nominating me this year, and I’m very proud of that,” she said, adding the recognition extended to her students in showcasing what they do. “It’s an incredible feeling because you know that it’s not just you, but it’s a community around you who have done this as well. I’m humbled to accept it on behalf of our schools.”

Dafoe has been an educator for 13 years, initially at Sturgeon Heights in St. Albert, where she operated a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) club in addition to her regular teaching role. When she moved to Four Winds, which opened in 2019-2020, she also started a STEAM club at the school.

In its first year, that club had 100 members. As the school had a Dance Academy and a Sports Academy, the members of the STEAM Club wondered why the school couldn’t also have a STEAM program.

“I went to the principal and proposed it,” Dafoe recalled, noting the principal took the idea to the Sturgeon School Division Board. “We were able to get up and running the next year in 2020-21 with a class of just 25 grade 5 and 6 kids.”

At the end of its third school year, the program had full classes for Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8/9, with waiting lists for all grades.

Through the school’s STEAM Academy, Dafoe integrates emerging and unique teaching practices and tools, giving her students cutting-edge experiences in robotics, coding, 3D printing, animation, graphic design, and invention/iteration. STEAM education rolls out into real-world challenges and competitions at regional and provincial levels.

“I believe what makes it [STEAM] popular is just that hands-on, real-world challenges, and being able to be creative in your thinking and you’re learning,” Dafoe said, adding that she teaches skills during the first hour of class, followed by a challenge incorporated into the second hour called a genius hour or passion project time. “It’s a time for them to explore an area of STEAM they’re passionate about. Then they create their learning experience, and I help facilitate and guide it along the way.”

Dafoe said that by the end of three months, students would showcase what they’d learned to the rest of the class and other school classes. “Many of them take on those projects for their next genius hour, so it’s all learning together,” Dafoe said.

Two of Dafoe’s students, Joshua and Ethan Keller, were excited for their teacher’s recognition on the national stage.

“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t exactly know how to feel about it,'” Grade 6 student Joshua Keller said. “Excitement went through my body when I heard about it.”

For brother Ethan, Grade 9, there was pride in the accomplishment. “I was extremely proud of her. She completely deserves it. I still think she’s underappreciated even with getting this award,” Ethan Keller said. “She’s just such an amazing teacher, honestly. I was just so proud of her.”

Both students find a similar appeal in STEAM. For Joshua, it is the enjoyment of learning new things that can help in everyday challenges and creating what his mind envisions. For Ethan, STEAM appeals to his passion for science. “I get to follow my passions, and I do what I want,” Ethan Keller said, adding that Dafoe is always there to help. “She’s always there to help me, no matter what I need.”

With four successful school years wrapped up, the program is looking to grow with new challenges and innovation in 2024-2025, including a partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, sponsorship for new robots called REV robots to enhance the Grade 8 and 9 program, and using Lego SPIKE primes.

“Our Academy has now grown throughout our division,” Dafoe said. “We now have other Academies that have sprouted in programs have sprouted in Gibbons, Namao, and Sturgeon Heights. Sturgeon Composite is now integrating STEAM programs within their high school so that when they [students] move on, they have something to move on to.”

Publisher’s Note: The author of this article, Stephen Dafoe, is not related to the subject, Christina Dafoe, beyond having the same surname.

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