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Monday, February 15, 2021

Homegrown Role Model: Alumna Named Finalist for Presidential STEM Honor

Phet Pease

During the winter break chill, middle school teacher Phet Pease (’05) received a text message from a former student that warmed her heart. The young woman had just been offered early acceptance and a full-ride scholarship to study computer science at Brown University — her dream school. 

The hallowed halls of the Ivy League may seem a long way away from City Heights — an underserved San Diego neighborhood with many English language learners and few parents with college degrees. But thanks to Pease, a San Diego State University alumna who teaches science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at Wilson Middle School, it’s closer than ever before. 

“Students who have gone through my STEM classes are going to great schools and they're pursuing STEM careers,” Pease says. “And it’s because they’ve been given the opportunity to do so.” 

Pease doesn’t use the word “opportunity” lightly. She understands that young people from neighborhoods like City Heights often lack exposure to high-quality STEM education, not to mention role models in STEM careers. She understands this reality because, as a City Heights native and former Wilson student herself, she’s lived it. 

And it’s why she now fully embraces being a homegrown role model. 

“My students see me as someone who has achieved success no matter what my ZIP code was,” Pease said. “That is what makes me passionate — I just want them to know that they can do it.” 

Over and over again, her students are proving her right — and some more good news received over winter break shows that others are starting to take notice. Pease was named one of six California finalists for the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). She’s now in the running for the national award, which will be announced this summer. 

Daunted by the long application and not expecting to find herself in the running, Pease admits she almost didn’t apply. But her students convinced her otherwise. 

“I brought it to my students and I said, ‘What do you guys think?’ They said ‘Yes, you have to do it!’” recalls Pease, who will also receive the San Diego County Engineering Council's 2021 Outstanding Engineering Educator of the Year award later this month. “It was really sweet of them — so I had the voices of the students pushing me on.” 

STEM for everyone 

Walk into Phet Pease’s classroom at Wilson Middle School during non-pandemic times, and you’ll find a kinetic din of young people working together in groups, collaborating on authentic projects aimed at solving community problems. Her students design and code apps for everything from reporting graffiti to promoting college readiness. They learn to 3-D print everyday objects. They even try their hands at robotics. 

“I tell my students that STEM is not only for those who are affluent,” said Pease, who makes it a point to bring STEM professionals into her classroom to speak, and to schedule field trips to local companies such as Qualcomm and Northrop Grumman. 

Outside the classroom, Pease founded Wilson’s robotics club in 2012. The main event for the club, which has swelled to 60 members, is Botball — an interscholastic competition where students design, engineer, code and operate robots. Opposing teams face off to see how well their respective robots complete tasks such as grabbing items or knocking objects over. 

Oftentimes, the Wilson middle schoolers find themselves going against high school teams. 

Oftentimes, they beat the older kids. 

“We're kind of known in the robotics world now,” Pease said. “My students have won all these different awards and trophies and it gives them such a boost of confidence. My students feel like they can do anything — and that's the truth.” 

Finding her purpose 

Pease, who earned a degree in biology from UC San Diego, had initially set out to be a STEM professional herself. While working at a biotech startup after graduation, she found herself finding a greater sense of purpose in her off hours, when she tutored students at San Diego’s Malcolm X Library. That experience led her to consider teaching and, ultimately, seek her credential at SDSU. 

From 2013-2018, Pease also participated in a Noyce Master Teaching Fellowship at SDSU, where she studied under the tutelage of Dr. Lisa Lamb, Qualcomm Endowed Professor of Mathematics Education, and Dr. Randolph Philipp, professor of mathematics education. 

“That was such an incredible experience working with like-minded, similarly passionate educators,” Pease said. “I am so grateful that they selected me to be a part of that fellowship program because it has completely made me a better teacher.” 

Today, you can count her among the nation’s best.