Christine Irby was honored by the Challenger Center for her work with special education students at Westwood Elementary.

Dayton teacher wins national award for STEM work in special education

Dayton Public Schools teacher Christine Irby on Monday won a national Innovative Educator Award for her work teaching science, technology, engineering and math concepts (STEM) to special education students at Westwood Elementary.

Officials of the National Challenger Center in Washington, D.C., chose Irby from a worldwide set of nominations as the winner of the group’s annual June Scobee Rodgers Award, recognizing “outstanding educators who value the importance of STEM education and demonstrate great enthusiasm in teaching STEM subjects.”

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Dayton’s Kiser Elementary is home to one of the world’s 42 Challenger Learning Centers, which use simulated space exploration missions to teach students collaboration, critical thinking and math and science skills.

Daria Teutonico, a vice president at the National Challenger Center, said Irby’s nomination clearly stood out, and several speakers talked about Irby’s devotion to her students.

“Her enthusiasm and dedication is something to be admired,” said Avril Gedman, a flight specialist at Dayton’s Challenger Center. “Christine is a teacher who is always finding ways to truly put her students first. Christine’s eyes do not see limitations for her students’ education.”

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Irby’s student Jaiven Pattson, a soft-spoken second-grader, hesitated to speak in front of Monday’s crowd after coming to the front in his wheelchair. But after encouragement from Irby, he excitedly described learning how to make “water rockets” with baking soda, water and vinegar.

“She’s such a great teacher,” he said, as Irby’s eyes teared up.

Gedman said Irby could be tough, too, not taking no for an answer when trying to help her students.

“It is time to annihilate the limitations of students with special needs,” Irby said, calling them, “different, but not less.”

“I focus on my students’ capabilities, not their inabilities or disabilities,” she said. “I wanted to find an engaging way to teach my students how to think, how to decipher, how to solve problems. These students thrive on hands-on instruction … despite severe disabilities.”

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Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the Challenger Center gives thousands of DPS students a hands-on opportunity to experience STEM education, adding that the district makes the center available to surrounding school districts as well.

Gedman said about 1,500 students per year participate in the simulated missions at the Challenger Center, and others are involved in monthly community science events. She said Irby is a frequent volunteer, always trying to learn more.

Irby thanked the Challenger Center staff, Westwood school leadership and staff, as well as parents and caregivers for their support.

“To my students, my huggables, thank you for allowing me to be your biggest fan and your champion,” she said.

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