Meghan Tepfenhardt of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District was honored last month as Suffolk County’s 2023 Teacher of the Year for Elementary by the Science Teachers Association of New York State, which promotes excellence in science education. She said she views the accolade as an opportunity that “opens doors” to more collaboration with others.
“In any manner that we can share that we’re doing as professionals, for the purpose of collaborating with each other and interacting in a way that we’re supporting the profession and supporting each other as teachers, is really important,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Ms. Tepfenhardt has been with the district 21 years and currently works as coordinator for its STEAM (science, technology, engineering art and math) program at Cutchogue East Elementary School.
As STEAM coordinator, she has developed programs and curriculums to meet the needs of the district’s increasingly diverse student population — and in the process earned the respect of the fellow educators who nominated her for the award.
Some of the programs she has implemented include the Kindergarten Regatta, which focuses on using wind and weather to learn how a sailboat functions; Apple Toss, a building-wide assembly in physics; and a Sunglass Design Fashion Show, which engages students in a study of ultraviolet rays and how humans can protect themselves against their harmful effects.
She has also managed projects with many community partners, including the Peconic Estuary Program, Long Island Regional Planning Council, Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation and Brookhaven National Laboratories.
Ms. Tepfenhardt’s mastery of planning instruction for students in grades K-6 makes for a robust STEAM program — and ensures that it aligns with the state’s Next Generation Science Standards, which help educators set expectations for what their students should know and be able to do.
She attributes the success of the program to the strong instructional foundation established by former district superintendent Anne Smith.
“One of the things that she did very early on in my career is invested and worked in writing curriculum and using a ‘backward design’ — and I think the reason why that was so important is that it had created lasting change, at least in my practice,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said.
Backward design is an approach to creating curriculum that prioritizes intended learning outcomes over the topics to be covered.
“When you’re then writing STEAM curriculum, and you really have the end in mind … you end up having incredibly strong alignment in terms of your daily practice, and your units of study end up being strongly aligned to what you’re setting out to do,” she said. “So I think that’s why it’s successful.”
Ms. Tepfenhardt doesn’t see the district’s STEAM program as ever becoming static. Her goal is to continue to create meaningful learning experiences for students and keep them excited about and engaged in learning.
“I see it as evolving and changing,” she said. “I think the curriculum has to be responsive to the needs of students so as time changes, so should [the program].”