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Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

In November, Niagara University alumna Kimberly Alexander Carlo, ’15, M.S.Ed.’17, received the prestigious national Milken Educator Award, hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching." Alexander Carlo, a seventh-grade science teacher in the Lewiston-Porter Central School District, is the first educator in the district to have received this honor, which recognizes outstanding K-12 educators nationwide for their excellence and leadership in the profession.

While the award was a complete surprise to Alexander Carlo—there is neither a nomination nor an application process—it did not surprise her former NU professors to hear that she had been selected.

"Kimberly was one of the standout students of my career," said Dr. Michael Barnwell, director of the NU honors program. "I still use some of her papers as samples for my classes, and her honors thesis project (“Invasive dreissenid mussels and the vertical mixing of nutrients and phytoplankton in Lake Erie") stands out as one of the most unique and impressive projects ever conducted in the program.”

“Kim was an amazing student, both in the classroom and in my research lab,” said Dr. William Edwards, professor of biology, who was her honors thesis advisor. “She was excellent as a scientist, excellent in the classroom, but especially an excellent member of our Niagara community. She chose to go into middle school teaching to make a difference for the next generation of scientists in our community.”

Alexander Carlo had wanted to become a teacher since she was five years old, she said, and the focus on science and the environment developed during her later childhood and early teen years when she would spend time in the woods near her home. Her father suggested that she consider combining both her passions into a career.

“That’s kind of how I ended up being able to blend this idea that I loved learning, that I loved teaching, but that I also loved science and the environment,” she said.

After graduating from Lew-Port high school, where she was valedictorian, Alexander Carlo came to Niagara University as biology major with an environmental studies coordinate, with the intent to pursue her master’s degree in education so she could become a middle school teacher.

She loved the biology program and the research she was able to perform starting in her freshman year, something other schools she had heard of couldn’t offer.

“I worked with Dr. Edwards my whole career there, and he’s fantastic,” she said. “If I hadn’t been under the mentorship of Dr. Edwards, I don’t think I could be where I am now. He was so pivotal in helping me to not only learn the science, but also to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.”

Alexander Carlo worked in both Dr. Edwards’ lab and in the lab of professor Coleen Edwards, gaining skills and experience that prepared her for the honors thesis she completed on invasive zebra mussels and quagga mussels in Lake Erie. She spent two years researching whether or not they were contributing to the increased harmful algae blooms that have been seen in the lake. As part of that research, she completed a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University at Buffalo, which helped her expand her honors thesis to include investigating how the mussel shells were impacting water flow. She also created a water sampling device that she used while working on a boat in the west basin of Lake Erie.

Although the results of her research weren’t as conclusive as she had hoped, the experience itself was “a good example of science,” she said.

“We did two years of all this, and the day we went out on the boat was the day that it was windy and wavey,” she said, which prevented her from getting all the data she needed to test her hypothesis.

Nonetheless, the project remains “an example to describe what is possible for honors students to achieve," said Dr. Barnwell.

Alexander Carlo began her graduate studies at Niagara immediately after earning her bachelor’s degree, and again appreciated the opportunity to work in the field immediately.

“They got us into a classroom in our very first semester, and that was huge,” she said.

Longtime College of Education faculty member Dr. Paul Vermette became a mentor to Alexander Carlo, encouraging her to continue to pursue her interest in research as an educator. She has since co-authored several articles and a book with Dr. Vermette, with whom she still works.

“Kim is a fine classroom instructor, a tremendous scholar, a role model for new teachers, and she grows from every experience,” said Dr. Vermette. “In my many projects with her, she has shown the ability to work effectively with diverse populations of scholars and students, and her classroom decisions reflect her commitment to excellence."

Alexander Carlo obtained a position with Lewiston Porter upon graduation and has been sharing her excitement for learning and science with her students ever since. She incorporates argument-driven inquiry into her curriculum, which requires both experimentation and a writing component, and closely approximates the work scientists do.

“The students do the lab as though they’re real scientists, so they have to come up with the procedure, they have to run the experiment, they have to write a rough draft, and they do a double-blind peer review, because that’s what real science looks like,” she explained. “I do ADI labs with them because I think they can really see what it would be like if it was their job.”

In addition to expanding their perceptions of what working as a scientist entails, Alexander Carlo also introduces her students to the diversity of scientists. Through “Scientist of the Month” lessons, the students have learned about modern-day researchers including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Katherine Johnson, and Stephen Hawking.

“It’s giving the students a chance to see scientists who look like them and scientists who don’t look like them, because it’s such a mix, and also opening their eyes to different career opportunities in the sciences,” she said

Having been so positively influenced by the mentors in her life, Alexander Carlo says that mentoring is her favorite part of teaching.

“I really love when you can make a connection with a student and when you can be there for them no matter what it is that they need,” she said. “I think it’s important to me because I had so many amazing mentors throughout my life. All I ever wanted to do is be a mentor for other people.”