Saint Leo ACES Scholar Working Toward STEM Teaching Career
Meet Laela Ouellette, a Saint Leo University biology major with a secondary education minor who was named the first-ever ACES Scholar at Saint Leo.
Laela Ouellette has always had a passion for teaching others. Before college, she even served as a teacher's assistant to help her instructors and fellow classmates. She is now pursuing a degree from Saint Leo University which combines her passions for science and teaching.
The 20-year-old originally hails from New Hampshire. She and her family moved to Florida when she was in middle school. She is a 2018 alumna of Frank W. Springstead High School in Spring Hill, FL where she met her current fiancée, Zack Starz. He is a 2020 Saint Leo alumnus of the BA in business administration with a management focus. She has an 18-year-old brother, Jason, and a 10-year-old sister, Annabella.
According to Ouellette, during her college search, she was looking for a school she could commute to from home.
"We drove by the campus to just see where it was," she recalls. "I liked how they offered small classes and felt I could get more out of this school than others. Plus, my fiancée's cousin went there and is now a social studies teacher. I looked into both the education and biology degree programs and really liked what I saw."
"Growing up, I was always super interested in the nuances of science and wanted to learn how everything worked. I was the kid who always asked 'why?' in school. Science seemed to draw my attention more than English and social studies."
One of her teachers at Springstead High then told her that based on this keen interest, she should consider becoming a science teacher. She took this advice to heart.
Ouellette says several of her Saint Leo University instructors have helped shape her as a student and future teacher. She emphasizes her positive connections with Dr. Laura Altfeld, an associate professor of biology and ecology and her academic advisor, along with Prof. Cheryl Berry who teaches biology and life sciences and Dr. Iain Duffy, an associate professor of biology.
"All of the people surrounding me at Saint Leo have been very influential in my academics and future career," she confides. "The classes I have taken have been really awesome and have led to some great opportunities."
After several years of persistence from administrators and faculty, Saint Leo University obtained a grant worth $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation. The federal funding comes from the foundation's Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. The purpose of this grant is to develop future teachers to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) areas. Biology and mathematics majors who choose a minor in education at Saint Leo are eligible to apply. Students who are accepted to this program are known as ACES (Awarding Career Educators in STEM) Scholars.
The award consists of a scholarship worth over $18,000 per year for each of the final two years of higher education for qualified students. Recipients must teach for at least two years for every year in which they receive this financial support. Along with this significant tuition benefit, ACES Scholars have access to conferences and networking opportunities, in addition to mentoring and peer development during college and in the first few years of a graduate's teaching career.
Dr. Altfeld and Prof. Berry initially told Ouellette about the ACES Scholar program, she recalls.
"They told me that I should consider applying for this opportunity," she says. "Dr. Altfeld said I should take advantage of any opportunities out there as a secondary education minor."
Thanks to her hard work and successfully completing the application process, she was named the first-ever ACES Scholar at Saint Leo University during this past academic year, her junior year.
"It's been a very interesting experience. It has helped me make connections with professors and other students. The professional development opportunities I have access to through this program are a major benefit that many students never get, so I'm very fortunate."
And what does it mean to her to be the inaugural recipient of this prestigious opportunity at Saint Leo University?
"I have a little sense of pride," she says. "It's really wonderful to represent something like this, especially with how important STEM education is to me. In general, we are lacking female teachers in many cases today, especially women who teach in the STEM field. I can't wait to mentor the upcoming ACES Scholars we have in this program. My goal is for us to work together as a unit to help everyone be successful in their careers."
According to Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of the undergraduate education degree program and member of the team behind the ACES Scholar program, there are several requirements students must meet to be considered for this prestigious honor.
"Laela had to get letters of recommendation, meet a GPA requirement, and go through an interview process," Atkins explains. "The National Science Foundation wants scholars who set high academic standards for themselves. Laela will be an exemplary classroom teacher. She is very articulate and has a passion that truly shines through."
What makes the program even more unique is that it not only benefit scholars when they are enrolled in college, but it also goes several years beyond that timeframe.
"When Laela and others graduate from Saint Leo, we will follow them and provide them with ongoing mentoring," Atkins says. "We will look at what's working for them and any challenges they are facing, and then we will collaborate on solutions."
The goal is to help the students – and eventual graduates –keep that passion for teaching burning inside, Atkins says.
"We want to make sure that these excited, knowledgeable classroom teachers stay active and engaged in their careers."
Along with the coursework in her biology degree program, Ouellette has already done tutoring at University Campus for some of her fellow classmates and will be doing supplemental instruction. Since January, she has done field placement work at Pasco High School in Dade City, FL.
"I've been working with ninth and tenth graders in both traditional and honors biology classes," she explains. "It's been a really fun experience. It's always scary to start something you've had this abstract idea about doing for a long time. From my first day, the students were extremely responsive and it truly has solidified my desire to teach."
Several aspects of this exposure to real-world classroom experience have stood out to her.
"It's so rewarding to be able to formulate my own lesson plans. Establishing relationships with the students is great as well. I can see those 'a-ha' moments in them, and I know that they will remember certain concepts when they leave the classroom."
Plus, she has enjoyed learning from other teachers.
"It's interesting to me to observe how other teachers interact with the students," she says. "The other teachers have been more than helpful and have given me so many resources to succeed."
Her goal is to work as a biology teacher for high school freshmen and sophomores.
"They're all still super excited about school at that age," she says.
Ouellette has had the chance to use the Mursion technology with simulated experiences at Saint Leo.
"It's a bit jarring when you first use this technology, knowing that real people are behind the screen and voicing the characters. It gives you experience in handling classroom management with students trying to use their phones during class, coming and going from the classroom, and other dynamics that go on in an active setting like this."
She adds that this technology has helped her handle classes in which some students are learning from home on Zoom.
Atkins underscores the important connection between this technology and the ACES Scholar program.
"The use of Mursion is an intentional part of the Noyce scholarship and ACES Scholar program," says Atkins. "It's a big piece of the multiyear grant we have received. The students take a pre-test before using the technology. After they do the simulated experiences and gain exposure to various classroom scenarios, they complete a survey about how they feel and how effective this training is for them. Ultimately, we will be reporting on this ongoing research."
Atkins adds that Ouellette is a perfect example of the goal to bring more women into the profession, particularly to teach STEM-specific courses.
"If we look at the overall numbers, there are predominantly female teachers at the elementary level, but there are far fewer at the middle and high school levels. Female teachers in the STEM field are definitely underrepresented. We're excited to be able to give students like Laela this opportunity to start closing this gap."
She emphasizes that pursuing a teaching career with a certain college major has its perks.
"There are lots of misperceptions about teacher pay," Atkins explains. "We know that these students with an education concentration are making more than, say, standard biology majors. This exemplifies how important the education minor can be when choosing a degree program."
Ouellette offers up some sound advice for prospective students considering a career in teaching.
"There's nothing wrong with following your dreams and what you're interested in," she says. "If you want to be a teacher, Saint Leo has so many resources they make available to students. I would highly suggest considering Saint Leo University."
Learn more about the eligibility requirements and benefits of the ACES Scholars program at Saint Leo University on the ACES Scholar program page. Check out this Saint Leo news story for more details on this exciting program.