Helping students learn, especially abstract science concepts, brings joy to Johanna Brown (’13 MIT Ed.). The desire to teach science led her to Washington State University for a master’s in teaching, then across town to Pullman High School.

After several years of teaching chemistry and computer science, the National Science Teaching Association recognized Brown in 2022 for her achievement in science education, with the Robert E. Yager Exemplary Teaching Award. The award honors a teacher who makes science education accessible to students.

Chemistry teacher Johanna Brown holds a flask
Johanna Brown (Courtesy Johanna Brown)

That award comes after Brown was one of six Washington state math and science teachers selected in 2021 as finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.

In addition to Advanced Placement chemistry and computer science classes, Brown coached the PHS Knowledge Bowl and Science Bowl teams.

“I once had a student in AP chemistry ask, ‘Ms. Brown, don’t you get bored just thinking about the same chemistry stuff every year?’ I responded with, ‘I’m not thinking about the chemistry, I’m thinking about you all learning the chemistry, and that always changes.’”

Brown’s own latest change brought her to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) as science content lead for grades 6–12 in the state of Washington.

“Transitioning away from students has been incredibly hard,” Brown says. “I miss their energy, ideas, and the immediacy of helping them. Being in a new role like I am with OSPI means that I get to influence the nature of many classrooms and hopefully help students in a very broad way.”

Brown’s new role keeps her focused on the big picture, but without losing sight of her goal of expanding equity in education and inspiring a love of science in students.

“Science is not memorizing the periodic table or knowing that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell,” Brown says. “It’s making sense of the matter and energy around us and using our powers of explanation and expression to model and share human knowledge.

“To boil it down, the most important thing science education can do is to help students never lose the creativity and wonder to ask ‘why?’”