Educator champions accessible science5/4/2022
Sarah Borzo’s life trajectory changed because of one impactful teacher.
Growing up, Borzo loved being around children. Until the age of 22, she hoped to have her own elementary school classroom.
Then, during her last semester of college before student teaching, she took a science methods class with Dr. Jerrid Kruse at Iowa State University. It was a class she had avoided until the last minute, but it changed everything.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, how we get kids to love science is by making sure we present science in an approachable and exciting and engaging way,’ ” Borzo recalled. “And it just lit a fire to be the one who could do that.”
Until that point, Borzo had been adamant — she was not a science person, and she would never teach students above the third grade.
Instead, she taught middle school science for the next 11 years.
“My dad would say all the time, ‘I saw a lot of possibilities for you, but science was never included,’ ” Borzo said with a laugh.
But such is the impact of a good teacher. Today, those who meet Borzo notice her passion for science fills the room. She emphasized the importance of dismantling stereotypes of mad scientists and robotic researchers.
“People who typically can do the most for us from a scientific perspective are going to be creative and open-minded and focused on humanity,” she said.
Borzo’s approach to teaching demands creativity from both her and her students. Rather than simply presenting information and making assumptions about students’ processing styles and existing knowledge, Borzo encourages them to make conclusions for themselves. The unpredictability can be difficult.
“When you are basing your instruction on questions, you don’t necessarily know for sure where it’s going to go,” she said. “Being able to take what kids give and figure out how to make the next move based on that, all the time — it’s challenging.”
While it might take a lot of problem-solving to pave the right investigative paths for her students, the puzzle is worth the reward.
“My favorite times are when you see a kid’s face light up, you see their excitement,” Borzo said. “They’ll actively say things like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew I was good at science.’
“That is a huge win for society, when a child recognizes that they have a place in something that they didn’t feel they had a place in before.”
After 10 years of teaching sixth grade science in Waukee, Borzo made the decision to leave the traditional school setting. She had imagined retiring out of that classroom, but the pandemic — and a growing curiosity about how else science education could look — prompted her to explore other career paths.
Now, Borzo works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator at Metro Waste Authority (MWA), where she creates engaging and accessible STEM materials for science educators in Iowa.
“It’s been a really fun way to flex my traditional teaching background and skill set, but just in a completely different way, for a much broader audience,” she said.
The resources Borzo designs are not only accessible, they are imaginative and immersive. One project, funded through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a first-person simulation game where students act as the administrator of a solid waste agency. It’s similar to the Oregon Trail, a once-popular computer game, Borzo said.
Another project, also funded by the EPA grant, provides teachers with a kit that includes 15 virtual reality headsets allowing students to experience the human impact on the environment.
According to Borzo, schools have a great need for “cool STEM resources.” She works to fulfill that need every day.
“Never in a million years would I have had time to do that as a classroom teacher,” she said. “I scoured the Internet looking for things like that. I just couldn’t find it.”
Last February, Borzo was one of two Iowa teachers who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).
Despite her many accomplishments for education, Borzo is quick to defer recognition and acclaim.
“The only reason I have done anything impactfully is because of the people who helped develop my perspective, developed my background and skill set, because of the kids I’ve worked with,” she said. “I always shy away from the idea of being named as an award-winner, when I’m just so aware that it’s an award that should be for so many people.” ♦