BISMARCK, ND — When the bell rang at Saxvik Elementary School in Bismarck, it would be hard to find students loitering the halls looking for excuses to skip class. In fact, a walk down those halls would find something that resembled reveille at basic training. Instead of sad, sleepy young men and women scurrying to get in line for duty, a flurry of happy and anxious third graders elbowing each other to get into class would be a more likely sight. Not just any old class—but Loni Miller’s science class.

If the sound echoing into the hallway didn’t give it away, a peek inside the classroom door would perhaps surprise even the most traditional parent or teacher. Instead of a sit-down-and-listen class, Miller’s students could be seen dancing, raising creepy crawly things, playing with food and many more cool things.

“I am a big believer in learning by doing,” said Miller, who taught at the school from 2012 through 2015 after graduating from the University of Mary in 2008 with an elementary education degree. “My students were often using movement to learn concepts. For example, the students were required to learn place values to 1,000 and we had a dance (hand movements and jumping over the comma) to help them learn the concept. The science activities included: recycling a 2-liter pop bottle into a self-watering planter; ‘raising’ crayfish, meal worms, silk worms, and butterflies; learning about the importance of washing hands by using potatoes; learning about Newton’s laws via an egg drop activity; Lego Robotics; creating instruments to learn about how sound travels; inviting in experts to talk about their fields (engineers, pilots, police officers, mechanics, farmers, etc.). These activities were then connected to many other parts of the curriculum. For example, when the class was learning about the crayfish they were required to document their observations and then complete a nonfiction, informational writing piece. They also would use the crayfish to solve math problems like: How many legs would seven crayfish have in total (7 x10=70 legs)?”

It’s teaching moments like those that earned Miller the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) from President Obama. The president recently named 213 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the award. These awardees represent all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

PAEMST is awarded to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and educators following an initial selection process at the state level.

“The recipients of this award are integral to ensuring our students are equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to our nation’s success,” President Obama said.

Miller and fellow recipients will receive their awards at a ceremony in Washington, DC, on September 8—which also includes a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. However, there is no greater reward for Miller than to see her students do their best, not to give up when they fail at a task and to find their passion.

“Being recognized as a science teacher with the Presidential Award is an immense honor,” stated Miller, a native of Raleigh, ND. “I am thankful for the opportunity to have had great teachers in my past that allowed me to pass on their information to my students. Inspiring students to become scientists is a great passion for me and I enjoy directing the students to become ‘problem solvers.’”

Helping students become problem solvers and engaged in their studies became a hallmark of Miller amongst her peers and even parents—many of whom she’s made a lasting impact on and in 2014 nominated her for this award.

“She has inspired me to think outside the box when it comes to science,” stated Holly Dietrich a former teaching partner at Saxvik in her letter of recommendation. “Another outstanding quality I have observed is students truly see themselves as scientists.”

Saxvik’s principal at the time, Linnett Schmidkunz, said Miller’s passion for math and science is evident. “Loni’s work with our students and families prepare and empower them to succeed,” and “to be masters of their learning.”

“What I most admire about Loni is her remarkable ability to stimulate students and add personality to the subject material,” commented Sheri Murrey, mother of one of Miller’s students. “Students can feel the passion, energy and optimism radiate from her teaching. Her dynamic style makes students listen attentively to her. Loni not only teaches exceptionally well but she also cares a lot about the level of understanding from each student.”

Saxvik Elementary’s doors have since closed, the halls have gone quiet and the school bell rings silent. Miller has now returned to her alma mater where she credits the University of Mary for helping her build relationships, lead by example or “walk the walk,” infuse reflective thinking in her teaching and to always put students first. As assistant professor and elementary education program director in the Liffrig Family School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Mary, Miller’s new role provides her the opportunity to go and observe university students teaching in classrooms across the district.

“The great thing about my job with the University of Mary is that I get to go into multiple classrooms across the area,” she explained. “I am still able to see my former students in action, and see great teachers. I also love seeing how passionate the students at the University of Mary are about the teaching profession.”