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Mark Howell Wins Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching


Earlier this year, Gonzaga’s very own Mark Howell, computer science department chair and mathematics teacher, won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  The White House officially announced his win recently in October.

After applying to be eligible for the award, the National Science Foundation presented Howell the award for his creative academic methods as a computer science and mathematics along with a $10,000 award.  He will also be recognized by the President of the United States for these achievements in the classroom.

“There are lots of components to the application,” Howell said.  “They look at, for example, what work you’ve done in helping other teachers in your career, whether you know your content matter, the subject matter and what your history has been as an educator.”

It is no easy task to win an award of this caliber.  The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, considered the highest recognition for a K-12 mathematics or science teacher in the United States, is only given to a maximum of 108 teachers per year.  Howell was one of three people selected by a state committee, and then a national committee selected him to be the winning finalist.

Howell started teaching  in 1977, but he left for a short period to earn his masters of arts in teaching at the University of Chicago; despite this brief absence, Howell has been teaching here for a combined total of 40 years.  As a veteran, Howell knows how to effectively teach his advanced classes in computer science, geometry, pre-calculus and calculus.

“He’s been here at Gonzaga for 40 years, and he still looks at his craft as something that he can learn to do better.  He is not content with just being who is as a teacher – he’s already a great teacher, he’s an incredible teacher, his kids do amazingly well coming out of his course – and yet he’s always trying to be better,” said Paul Buckley, mathematics department chair. “He was here when […] I was a student here, and he’s still trying to be a better teacher.  And if he can try to be a better teacher – he’s already a great teacher – then I should try to be a better teacher, too.”

Photo from – Mark Howell holding Presidential award with National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources Assistant Director, Dr. Karen Marrongelle, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier, and National Science Foundation Chief Operating Officer, Dr. F. Fleming Crim

Just being a great teacher, though, isn’t enough reason to get the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  Recipients need to be able to provide engaging lessons that inspire more thought.

“[Howell] comes up with all kinds of creative and fun projects that really challenge students to think critically,” Scott Blair, director of information systems, said.

Winners must also be able to motivate students and give them the ability to excel in class.

“He does a great job of getting the kids to work and motivating them to try to do their best, and I think that comes across in their results,” Buckley added.

As a recipient of the award, Howell has proven his talent for teaching with a passion, pushing students to go the extra mile in his class.

“What I believe is my strongest trait as a teacher in the classroom is the fact that I love what I’m doing.  I love the process of teaching and, in particular, teaching at Gonzaga. And I also love the content, and I know the content matter well.  And so that enables me to be enthusiastic,” Howell said.

Around Gonzaga, Howell is known for being more than just a skilled teacher.  He is known as someone who truly cares for his students and colleagues. His care for his students strengthens his teaching abilities, enabling him to engage with his students better in the classroom.

“He really cares for the students.  There’s a term ‘cura personalis’ which is ‘care of the whole person,’ and Mark exemplifies this in the classroom.  He doesn’t just want to teach the material and challenge the students and help them love to learn; he also cares about their well-being, not just academically but spiritually and socially as well,” Blair said.

The attention he gives his students goes beyond just the classroom, as he has been involved in many extracurriculars at Gonzaga.

“Mark coached football for a long time. […] he’s still a regular Kairos [leader], I think he goes pretty much every year.  One of the things that makes him an effective classroom teacher is being able to relate to students, not just in the classroom, but on the football field or on something like a retreat,” said Mike Howell, academic dean.

The combination of his care for his students and skill in the classroom does not go unnoticed.  Students who have had Howell have praised his teaching expertise.

“He was just a good teacher in the way that he was able to convey the concepts he was getting across and answering questions thoroughly that people had about the material.  Besides the subject matter being interesting, he made the class a more involved learning experience, which I felt contributed to our understanding and engagement with the material,” said Ryan Luetjen, a current senior who was in his AP Computer Science class last year.

This award serves as a strong example of the time and dedication Howell has put into his career, adding to his already impressive list of educational achievements.

“I’ve taught at a bunch of different schools, seen a bunch of different math teachers, and the passion he puts into his craft, and it is a craft for him, is second to none,” said Scott Waller, mathematics teacher.  “Mr. Howell is right up there with one of the best in the world.”

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