Why teachers are striking in Oklahoma
The canopy is one of many ways in which students in this rural school serving 320 teens have used science projects for class to improve their community. Cornelison’s students have also pressed their school to change heating and cooling practices to reduce the elevated levels of carbon dioxide they found in the classrooms, lobbied for healthier food options in the school cafeteria, and developed stronger school-emergency plans, such as yearly lockdown drills, which inspired a state law that extended them to all campuses in 2007.
Projects like these earned Cornelison, who now works as a trainer of principals and teachers at the Oklahoma Department of Education, national recognition during her tenure at Byng from 1988 to 2014, as well as a spot in the National Teachers Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, her students have traveled across the country, often flying on an airplane for the first time, collecting more than 300 awards at local and international science competitions, including some of the world’s most prestigious. For many students, access to the competitive science-fair circuit also brought acceptance letters to coveted universities, internships, and eventually a career in stem, law, health care, and other fields.
Jobs in the stem fields are among the fastest-growing occupations in America, according to the Pew Research Center. But as with girls and people of color, students from rural areas have been mostly left out of the push to prioritize stem, and many, like Cornelison—a proud third-generation Oklahoman—don’t want to leave their hometown for a job at a big company like Google or General Electric. That’s why Cornelison’s approach to science education sought to orient her stem teaching around students’ ability to take what they learn and improve their communities—regardless of what discipline they choose as a career. Science in Cornelison’s classrooms was just as much about the future of innovation as it was about values such as self-sufficiency, work ethic, and collaboration.
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These beliefs run deep in the tallgrass prairies and oak savannas of rural Oklahoma. Cornelison grew up on 160 acres of farmland near the town of Seminole, where she was a straight-A student in a class of just 16 students.
Each year, Cornelison competed in the fall county fair, where locals showed off their harvest bounty, farm animals, and handmade arts and crafts. Whenever the awards were announced, Cornelison’s family rushed to the winning entries to see how they could improve their methods. “You learned to view every failure as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes,” says Cornelison, who competed for the first time when she was in fifth grade, submitting a hand-stitched handkerchief. “And you internalized the idea that those who won succeeded because of their effort and persistence, not because they were born good gardeners.”