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USM Grad Wins Presidential Excellence in Teaching Award

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 13:12pm | By: Margaret Ann Macloud

Dr. Shani BournA three-time alumna of The University of Southern Mississippi recently earned the highest possible honor in education from the United States government—the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching—for her distinction in the classroom and dedication to improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Dr. Shani Bourn (B.S. ‘92, M.S. ‘98, Ph. D ‘19) was one of two Mississippi teachers to earn this award from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Bourn recently retired from a 28-year career as a life sciences teacher at Hancock High School, where she also served as the school’s Science Department Chair.

“This is like the Oscars of science teaching,” Bourn said with amazement at being chosen as a recipient. “It’s validating, it’s humbling, and it’s valued.”

During her tenure, Bourn taught all grades and science subjects at the high school level as well as some college courses. The National Board Certified teacher gave of her talents outside the classroom, too, serving on the board of and as a district director for the Mississippi Science Teachers Association and on the state Department of Education’s task force that revised college and career science standards.

When Bourn began looking at doctoral programs, she initially planned on moving out-of-state. The course offerings and geographic location of USM’s Center for Math and Science Education and the Gulf Coast Research Lab, however, kept her at home—a program from which even her students today benefit.

“It’s really a testament to their programs. They have top-level, current research topics that go in-depth, so I felt like I was well-prepared,” Bourn recalled. “The Gulf Coast Research Lab has so many artifacts and experiences that I’m able to bring back to my students—things that make that lightbulb go off for them and realize what our coast has to offer.”

Bourn was also a participant in the NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Site for Sustainable Polymer Engineering Research at USM, which she deemed “invaluable.”

“Not only was I able to do relevant research but learn about new research—up-and-coming things that make our lives better,” she said. “I got to learn lab techniques that I could share with my students, and they awarded us money for items that enhanced our classroom and students’ learning experiences. It was phenomenal.”

“It was a great pleasure having Shani work in our laboratories for two summers and welcoming her students on campus for fall field trips,” Professor Sarah Morgan, Director RET Site and Associate Director of the School of Polymer Science and Engineering, said. “Shani is the kind of teacher who inspires students to excel in STEM and is highly deserving of the award. We look forward to continuing our partnerships with Mississippi school districts to engage teachers and students in polymer science and engineering research.”

“Dr. Bourn’s accomplishments are impressive. She is a lifelong learner and role model for her students. The Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Southern Miss is so proud to be a part of her story,” Dr. Julie Cwikla, Interim Director of the CSME, said.

Perhaps what makes Bourn worthy of this highest honor is her favorite thing about the classroom: learning, not only for the students but for herself.

“I’m such a geek,” she laughed. “When the kids start geeking out and get excited, too, I mean, how can you not be excited about that? It’s about making everybody better. They make you better, you make them better. It’s win-win.”



Established in 1983, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) is the highest award given by the U.S. Government to kindergarten through 12th grade teachers of mathematics and science, including computer science.

A panel of distinguished mathematicians, scientists, and educators at the State and National levels assess the applications before recommending nominees to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Teachers are selected based on their distinction in the classroom and dedication to improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Awardees are selected from schools in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States territories which includes American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands.