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Livermore educators win Sandia Excellence in Teaching awards

Sandia award

Transitional kindergarten teacher Heather Dion received a Sandia National Laboratories Excellence in Teaching Award for her innovative use of technology in her classroom. (Photo courtesy of Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District) Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.

LIVERMORE, Calif. — A recent knock on the classroom doors of three Livermore teachers brought a welcome surprise — the news that Heather Dion, Donna Lee and Amanda Johnston had won the Sandia National Laboratories Excellence in Teaching Award.

Given annually to teachers in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD) for extraordinary dedication in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, the honor comes with a $500 cash award to each teacher.

“Innovation in bringing new and engaging ideas into their classrooms was a theme among the winners,” said Madeline Burchard, Sandia community relations officer. “So we decided to be a bit innovative by surprising the teachers in their classrooms before they were officially recognized at a Livermore School Board meeting.”

LVJUSD Public Relations Officer Sam Tobis, LVJUSD STEM Coordinator Regina Brinker and Livermore Valley Education Foundation (LVEF) trustee Sue Ackerman joined Burchard in notifying the winning teachers.

Amanda Johnston — no task too big

Johnston, a Livermore High School (LHS) science teacher, has taken on challenges usually reserved for more senior staff. Within her first two years, she was already teaching multiple subjects.

“She has done a great job with many classes including our Green Engineering Academy’s most demanding course, engineering physics, which combines physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering and robotics,” said Mike Waltz, a teacher in the LHS Green Engineering Academy. “I don’t think there is another new teacher who could handle this breadth of rigorous STEM subject material all while learning the skills of classroom management.”

Outside the classroom, Johnston attended Project Lead-the-Way training and seminars to learn about new technology for the engineering curriculum. She also galvanized her entire Engineering Physics class to compete in the LVJUSD Science Odyssey and coached the LHS girls water polo team.

Donna Lee — quiet dedication

Lee, a science teacher at Junction Avenue K-8 School, was nominated for bringing progressive STEM curriculum to her students and her passion for ensuring access to educational opportunities for all, regardless of economic background.

Lee has completed extensive teacher training, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Teacher Research Academy, the Exploratorium Teacher Institute and Project Lead-the-Way summer. She enabled her students to participate in Expanding Your Horizons by arranging for transportation and securing scholarships that paid registration fees.

Heather Dion — sharing the world in her classroom

Dion, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Jackson Avenue Elementary School, was recognized for her innovative use of technology to make classroom material come alive, including Skype videocalls with scientists in Antarctica and a veterinarian at a turtle hospital. She challenged her 4- and 5-year-old students to program spherical robots through mazes and a variety of other challenges.

“Failure is not a bad thing in Ms. Dion’s classroom. It is a way to learn,” said Julie Janzen, LVJUSD elementary technology specialist. “It is amazing. Even during free time her students continue to ‘play’ with scientific concepts.”

STEM education a priority for Sandia

In 2007, Sandia established an endowment with LVEF to fund the Excellence in Teaching Award. Principals and staff members can nominate teachers for the award, and parents and students are encouraged to submit suggestions for potential nominees to principals. LVEF organizes and leads the selection committee, which includes its representatives and those from LVJUSD, Sandia and the community.

The Excellence in Teaching award is just one way that Sandia supports STEM education in the community. Other programs include Family Science Night, the Department of Energy Science Bowl, Expanding Your Horizons and the Math and Science Awards. Through employee volunteers and donations from the Lockheed Martin Gifts and Grants program, Sandia also supports MathCounts and numerous science fairs and STEM competitions.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Patti Koning,, (925) 294-4911