COMET • Vol. 10, No. 09 – 26 March 2009


Anaheim Mathematics Teacher Wins Prestigious Siemens Award

Source: Reuters Press Release

Dedication, commitment and exemplary service are distinguishing characteristics of Fairmont Preparatory Academy mathematics teacher Sam Calavitta. He is one of 50 teachers nationwide who was awarded a 2009 Siemens Award for Advanced Placement for teachers last month. The award is given to one teacher in every state; Calavitta is the 2009 California winner.

“I am truly blessed to work for an organization whose leadership not only permits, but encourages both teachers and students alike to strive for unrestrained excellence,” said Calavitta, who co-founded the Engineering and Applied Sciences Magnet program at Fairmont’s Preparatory Academy.

The award recognizes Calavitta for his commitment to quality education and honors him as the embodiment of the best of American education, which encourages talented students and inspires them in the classroom while instilling a love of learning.

“Through a genuine passion for learning, a love of young people, keen knowledge of his subject and one-of-a-kind teaching methods, Sam Calavitta lights a fire in the minds of his students,” Fairmont Private Schools Chief Executive Officer Robert Chandler said. “Like the mantra plastered above the white board of his class, he puts in motion a ‘yes, you can!’ philosophy that students apply to the study of higher mathematics as well as the many other academic and life challenges that come their way.”

Calavitta’s commitment and dedication to his students is not limited to the classroom; Calavitta speaks at seminars and workshops for teachers and parents. He is also the author of several teaching resources, including a calculus textbook.

Chandler cites Calavitta’s success in Advanced Placement Calculus as one of many of his achievements that make him invaluable to the school and its students. Calavitta’s students all aced the AP Calculus test–all 81 students not only passed the exam, but earned an average score of 4.79 out of 5.  [69 earned a 5.]

“Through passion, hard work and the unselfish gift of his time and talents, Sam tutors students during his lunch break and holds Saturday academic assistance sessions for an average of 50 students each weekend,” Chandler said. “I have come to know Sam as a teacher of extraordinary commitment and zeal.”


The Siemens Awards for Advanced Placement was established in 1998 and exemplifies the strong partnership between the Siemens Foundation and the College Board to expand and strengthen the pool of math, science and technology talent that will be needed for the continued growth of business and industry in the United States and globally. The foundation also honors 100 high school students (one male and one female from each state) and 50 high schools (one per state) with awards. Winners of the Siemens Advanced Placement Award for teachers also receive a $1,000 award and banners for their schools to display.


Related Stories:

(a) “11 Heroes Among Us” by Ashley Eliot

Source: OC [Orange County] Family

Sam Calavitta has barely taken a lunch in 20 years. Understanding calculus is already an accomplishment, yet teaching AP calculus for the last 5 years at Fairmont Preparatory Academy and having the program receive worldwide praise is an impressive achievement. Calavitta welcomes students into his classroom at lunch, after school and even on the weekends for extra help.

He and his wife, Monica, are the parents of 8 children, ages 17 to 3 years old, with another one on the way. Also, they are guardians of 4 children who have already made their way through college. He says his wife, who also has a teaching credential, is the real hero.

“I don’t have to teach, I only do it because I love it,” Calavitta says.

The author of “Calgebra” and “CAL-culus,” Calavitta has developed his own teaching method: “Create a meaningful, integrated learning environment. Never let them forget anything, but don’t drill them and kill them.”

With a family tree of several teachers, this former aerospace engineer has roughly 
75 students visit his classroom at lunchtime to ask questions, go over problems and learn from the expert. Calavitta admits to having high standards, but it’s all with good intentions. He expects 100% accuracy on the 10 problems he assigns for homework each night.

“Believe in them long enough and hard enough, then they won’t give up,” Calavitta says. “Every mistake they make turns into a positive learning experience.”

Calavitta is also a private math consultant for the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District’s pre-algebra and algebra teachers. He started the first wrestling team at Fairmont Prep, he competes in Ironman triathlons, and he and family members run the Eternal Warrior Wrestling Camp, which takes place each summer in Montana and is coached by Olympians and national champions.

(b) Proof of Anaheim Math teacher’s skill is in students’ test scores

Source: Los Angeles Times – 8 March 2009


Sam Calavitta presides over what may be the noisiest, most spirited math class in the nation.

He greets each student personally, usually with a nickname (“Butterfly,” “Batgirl” and “Champ” are a few) and a fist bump. Then he launches a raucous, quiz-show-style contest…

On a campus with about 560 students in seventh through 12th grades, 30% are enrolled in AP calculus classes. Since Calavitta began teaching AP courses in 1993, his students have had a 96% pass rate on the exam.

On campus, he is called Mr. Cal or simply Cal. His rapport with students, like his energy, comes easily. Think drill sergeant and trusted advisor. He sees himself as a math coach.

Boredom is an enemy. He–and his students–are always on the move…

Most of his students are not math whizzes, Calavitta said, but they are jazzed about calculus, a branch of mathematics that involves rates of change and is used in science, engineering and economics.

“What they get out of calculus here is a belief that they can do something that they never thought they’d be able to do,” Calavitta said. “My job is not to foster or cater to brilliance but to nurture perseverance.”

Before taking Calavitta’s class in 2004, former student Stephen Whitlock hated math. But he ended up with a 5 on the AP exam and is senior at Orange’s Chapman University majoring in math and planning to teach…

“If you think back to the past, everyone has a teacher who had an impact, someone they remember for years,” he said. “It’s about the math, but it’s also about developing character and discipline and having a commitment to them doing well”…

Calavitta’s ability to spark interest in math is unusual, said Hank Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who added that the number of math majors in colleges is flat.

“Kids have so many competing things they can get interested in, both in and out of school, and there are so many other disciplines calling them,” said Kepner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Selling that passion and excitement for a subject is something that students need to hear and see.”

Teaching runs in Calavitta’s blood–his mother, father and grandfather were in the profession–and he’s frustrated by people who blame instructors for the shortcomings of public education. He has taught in public schools with 55 kids in class and understands the stress and frustration.

He feels a kinship with another storied Southern California math teacher, Jaime Escalante, whose success teaching AP calculus to minority students at East Los Angeles’ Garfield High School won national plaudits and inspired the film “Stand and Deliver.”

Both teachers subscribe to the theory that learning should be fun. Calavitta has met several of Escalante’s former students at professional seminars.

“I feel what Escalante himself saw is that academics are secondary,” Calavitta said.

“If you want to make a difference in a kid’s life, you have to first of all let them know that they make a difference in your life.”



(1) U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Speaks at the National Science Teachers Association Conference

Source: U.S. Department of Education


Last Friday (March 20), U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a keynote address at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in New Orleans. The U.S. Department of Education Web site contains a transcript of his prepared remarks (see above), and the NSTA Web site contains a 30-minute video of his presentation (including the question and answer session, which covered topics such as internationally benchmarked standards, performance pay, and NCLB) at

A portion of Secretary Duncan’s prepared remarks follows below:

…The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides swift aid to states that they can use to avoid teacher layoffs and other education program cuts, modernize school buildings, and provide programs that protect the needs of special education and disadvantaged students.

As you know, the primary goal of the stimulus is to save jobs–but the larger goal is to drive a set of reforms that we believe will transform public education in America.

The four issues are: higher standards, data systems, turning around underperforming schools, and teacher quality.

First, we are encouraging states to adopt rigorous standards that are internationally benchmarked. A nation without true career- and college-ready standards is lying to its children. A nation with low academic standards is telling students and parents that our kids are doing well–when, in fact, they are not.

A nation that does not benchmark its standards against the highest international standards is crippling our children in the competition for jobs. That competition is not just coming from the next street or even the next state. It’s coming from India and China, Singapore and Korea.

Second, we want to see states building robust data systems that allow districts to better track the growth of individual students. We know that raising standards alone will not make a difference unless teachers and principals are provided with the information they need to make sure that students are learning.

Third, we want failing schools to be turned around. We need innovative, new instructional models. One of the first areas where we can foster innovation is the amount of time our students spend learning. Other top-performing countries do not take two months off in the summer. They do not dismiss students at two in the afternoon. Instead, they spend 30 or 40 more days per year in school and offer safe, constructive activities that keep kids learning. We must expand quality after-school programs and rethink the school day to incorporate more time–whether that’s by extending hours or offering more summer school.

Fourth, we are looking to incent states to invest heavily in teacher and principal quality initiatives that both elevate the teaching profession and help recruit and retain the best and brightest. Talent matters tremendously. Teachers are the most important factor for student success. We must find ways to get great teachers into underserved schools in our cities and in our rural areas–and I am wide open to ideas.

The law requires states to commit to these reforms in order to get the first round of funding–and to begin moving toward them for the second round of funding…

We need to respond to the market by paying more to teachers in high-need subjects like science and math.

I’m a big believer in differential pay. I want to reward excellence by paying teachers and principals who do a great job in the classroom.

I want to reward them for going into struggling school districts. That’s where the challenge is–if you’re going to take on a tough job, you should be rewarded….

The president sent a strong signal when he picked a Noble-Prize winning physicist to be our energy secretary–and I plan to work closely with him and with all of the other key agencies from NASA to the EPA to the National Science Foundation–to launch a new era of science education in America.

But, the challenge of getting more young people into science is not something we can successfully implement in Washington. That falls to you and your colleagues in classrooms all across America.

You need to challenge yourselves and each other to move the curriculum beyond dinosaurs and volcanoes–and I know that many of you already have–but we need to take the best ideas to scale in tough inner-city districts like this one–as well as rural areas that cannot find qualified teachers in every subject.

You need to make inquiry-based science relevant to kids–stimulate their curiosity–connect it with their lives. Together we need to change the national dialog about science–to prepare our kids to be honestly critical and technically competent.

Science is all about questioning assumptions, testing theories, and analyzing facts. These are basic skills that prepare kids not just for the lab–but also for life. We’re doing kids a disservice if we don’t teach them how to ask tough and challenging questions…

We have the leadership in the White House, we have the support on Capitol Hill, and now we have the funding.

Now we need you–your ideas, your energy, and your leadership–to build on the great tradition of inquiry, research, and theory that produced Edison and Einstein to create a new generation of scientists and make the world smarter and healthier.

America’s economic security tomorrow is directly tied to the quality of education we provide today. This is our task. This is our challenge…


(2) Study Finds That Students Benefit From Depth, Rather Than Breadth, in High School Science Courses

Source: University of Virginia

A recent study reports that high school students who study fewer science topics, but study them in greater depth, have an advantage in college science classes over their peers who study more topics and spend less time on each.

Robert Tai, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, worked with Marc S. Schwartz of the University of Texas at Arlington and Philip M. Sadler and Gerhard Sonnert of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to conduct the study and produce the report.

“Depth Versus Breadth: How Content Coverage in High School Courses Relates to Later Success in College Science Coursework” relates the amount of content covered on a particular topic in high school classes with students’ performance in college-level science classes.

“As a former high school teacher, I always worried about whether it was better to teach less in greater depth or more with no real depth. This study offers evidence that teaching fewer topics in greater depth is a better way to prepare students for success in college science,” Tai said. “These results are based on the performance of thousands of college science students from across the United States.”

The 8,310 students in the study were enrolled in introductory biology, chemistry or physics in 55 randomly selected U.S. four-year colleges and universities. The study explored differences between science disciplines, teacher decisions about classroom activities, and out-of-class projects and homework. The researchers carefully controlled for differences in student backgrounds (socioeconomic variables, English and mathematics proficiency, and rigor of their preparatory high science course).

Students who reported covering at least one major topic in depth for a month or longer in high school were found to earn higher grades in college science than did students who reported no coverage in depth. Students reporting breadth in their high school course, covering all major topics, did not appear to have any advantage in chemistry or physics and a significant disadvantage in biology. The authors conclude that teachers should use their judgment to reduce coverage in high school science courses and aim for mastery by extending at least one topic in depth over an extended period of time.

In addition, the study points out that standardized testing, which seeks to measure overall knowledge in an entire discipline, may not capture a student’s high level of mastery of a few key science topics. Teachers who “teach to the test” may not be optimizing their students’ chance of success in college science courses, Tai noted.

“President Obama has challenged the nation to become the most educated in the world by having the largest proportion of college graduates among its citizens in the coming decade,” Tai said. “To meet this challenge, it is imperative that we use the research to inform our educational practice.”


(3) Radio Series on Women in Science and Engineering Wins Gracie Award

Source: National Science Foundation (NSF) March 12, 2009


A series of NSF-funded radio programs about the changing role of girls and women in science and engineering has won recognition as the winner of two 2009 Gracie Awards. These awards are made by American Women in Radio and Television, a non-profit organization that has worked since 1951 to improve the quality of broadcast programming and the image of women as depicted in radio, television and cable.

Produced by WAMC-Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York, “The Sounds of Progress: The Changing Role of Girls and Women in Science and Engineering” is a two-part project.

Part I is a series of eight stories that examine groundbreaking research and the implementation of research-based practices throughout the U.S. designed to increase the role of young girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Part II offers 26 two-minute radio modules about fascinating women throughout history who were pioneers in STEM fields–from the first woman professor of physics in 18th-century Italy to a Civil War surgeon who was the first and only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor–as well as stories researched and recorded by middle school-age girls about their favorite women in STEM.

The stories are accessible at

“We are all honored to receive these awards,” said Glenn Busby, principal investigator and series producer. “This was a two-year team effort that we hope has an impact on the lives of women in science all around the country.”

“The Sounds of Progress” is one of 55 Gracie winners in the Local, Public and Student Award Winners category. The series was recognized both for Outstanding Documentary-Short Format and for Outstanding Public Affairs Program. The awards will be formally made in New York City on June 4.

“We are very excited to have these stories out there and available to researchers, teachers, faculty, and all those interested in what is cutting edge in science education for girls and women,” said Jolene Jesse, program director for the Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program at NSF. “The sharing of information and promising practices about what works for women and girls is vital to changing the face of science and ensuring a dynamic and innovative science and engineering enterprise.”


(4) Curriculum Matters, A Blog by Education Week’s Reporters

Source: Education Week

Education Week (“EdWeek”) is a weekly print and online publication that is an excellent source of news involving all aspects of education. EdWeek’s Web site has added a useful blog for teachers called Curriculum Matters: “A wide-ranging forum for discussing school curriculum across the subject areas.” Education reporter Sean Cavanagh typically composes the posts. Readers are encouraged to respond using a simple interface.

As an example, yesterday’s post follows below:

“Virtual Manipulatives” and Interactive Math & Science

Teachers often use manipulatives–boxes, shapes, figures and games–which students can handle during in-class activities to explain math and science concepts. A colleague of mine forwarded me a link to a web site ( [Note from CFB: Do visit this interesting Web site]) that offers teachers interactive math and science resources and Web-based “virtual manipulatives,” which seeks to help educators build student understanding. In addition to housing interactive tests and features that allow students to manipulate shapes, the site offers general suggestions on teaching for math and science educators. The entries include tips on how teachers can use popular games to explain math and the possible uses of technology (e.g., “Using Google Earth in Science and Math”).

For the math and science teachers out there: How useful do you find Web-based resources in your classes? How often do you get new ideas from these sorts of sites? Do you have the time–not to mention the computer resources–to have your students make use of Web resources like this one?


(5) “Obama Quizzes Astronauts about Life in Space” by Chris Baltimore

Source: Reuters – 24 March 2009

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station took a break from construction tasks on Tuesday [(March 24)] to answer questions from schoolchildren and U.S. President Barack Obama about the rigors of space life.

For Discovery’s crew, Tuesday was mostly a day of rest after they completed three spacewalks to deploy a new set of solar arrays and other construction tasks to prepare the $100 billion station for a six-person crew–double its current size.

The station, a project of 16 nations under construction for more than 10 years, is scheduled to be finished in 2010…

It was Obama’s first chance to chat with an orbiting U.S. space shuttle crew since he took office in January, and he was clearly enjoying it. Obama is the fifth U.S. president to speak with orbiting space station and shuttle crews, NASA said…

Station commander Mike Fincke told Obama that the space station does a lap around Earth every 90 minutes, and that inhabitants get to see 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours.

About a dozen school children from Washington-area schools asked questions: What do astronauts eat? Can they play video games in space? What do you study to become an astronaut?

One student asked how many stars were in space.

“I’ll be interested in hearing the answer to this one,” Obama said.

“We can see that there are so many stars out there that it’s very hard to count them all,” Fincke said. “And we can see that our Earth is a very small planet in such a big universe”…

NASA has up to nine more missions to the space station (as well as a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope) planned before it retires the shuttle fleet in 2010.


Update from NASA (

Space shuttle Discovery undocked from the International Space Station at 3:53 p.m. EDT Wednesday. At 5:09 p.m., the first of two separation burns was performed to move Discovery away from the station to start the journey home. The final separation burn occurred at 5:37 p.m.

The STS-119 crew [was] scheduled to go to sleep at 10:13 p.m. EDT. They will wake at 6:13 a.m. Thursday and perform a late inspection of Discovery’s thermal protection system using the shuttle robotic arm and the Orbital Boom Sensor System around 10:28 a.m.

Discovery’s first landing opportunity at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., will be Saturday (March 28) at 1:43 p.m.


Related Links:

(a) Photo of President Obama talking with the crew of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery:

(b) Link to NASA TV to watch the crew of STS-119 talk with students at Punahou School in Honolulu on Friday, March 27, at 10:03 a.m. PDT:

(c) Interview with space shuttle Discovery astronauts who are former teachers:

(d) Links with instructions on tracking/viewing the International Space Station and other space craft (enter state and city for detailed information): and