McNeil teacher wins fellowship

During Sheryl Sotelo’s three decades in education, 18 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, nine of them at McNeil Canyon Elementary School, she has earned an impressive, long list of awards and honors. Among them are the 2002 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and a $10,000 Toyota Tapestry Grant awarded at the 2008 National Science Teachers Association National Conference on Science Education.

Her passion for teaching and science also has created opportunities for the students in her sixth-grade classroom. You’ll find them on local beaches, taking water samples from nearby streams, visiting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Kasitsna Bay Research Lab and learning to maneuver their submersible robots under the surface of the pool at Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center.   

It’s just those kinds of achievements and activities that have earned Sotelo her latest award: the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship.

Sotelo is among 27 science, technology, engineering and mathematics educators chosen for the program. Beginning Sept. 1, the fellows will spend 11 months in the Washington, D.C., area working with sponsoring agencies that include the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and NOAA. The fellows’ classroom experience will be used to guide education programs and policies, especially those related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Under the guidance of Marilyn Suiter, NSF’s program director for special activities, Sotelo will serve at NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Human Resources Development Division in Arlington, Va., the “NSF branch that deals with women in science, minorities in science and how to reach those students,” said Sotelo. 

“It should be a great experience for her,” said McNeil Principal Pete Swanson who wrote a letter of recommendation for Sotelo. “This is tremendous. A good thing for everybody.”

Amy Budge, a special services teacher at McNeil, also wrote a letter of recommendation for Sotelo. 

“She carries out her obligations with vigor and resolve whether it is setting up for Robotics, organizing the ‘Adopt a Stream,’ raising salmon fry in our hall aquarium, having the students demonstrate how they put together a bear skeleton, sponsoring after-school skiing, planning science field trips or playground duty,” said Budge. “She puts in many hours beyond the school day in preparation. She continues to keep herself current and energetic about her profession by attending national conferences and exploring new areas of interest.”

In summary, Budge said, “I would recommend her without reservation as a positive role model and professional for other teachers, colleagues, parents and students. She would be a great representative in D.C.”

During the fellowship, Sotelo also will be given an opportunity to work on her own professional development.

“They said that you need to think about what you want to do with this year, what conferences do you want to attend,” she said. “We’re free to take off for a few hours to go to Capitol Hill to listen to some discussion, or, if there’s a
lunch speaker at NSF, take off and listen. If another Einstein fellow is working on a project, (the program) loves collaboration.”

Some fellows move their families to Washington for the 11-month stay. Others are close enough to fly home on weekends and holidays. Sotelo and her husband, Ed,
who works for the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project
coaching early-career teachers, are considering the “distance plan.”

“He’s doing this really amazing job and I don’t want him to give that up,” said Sotelo. “He couldn’t be happier for me and he doesn’t want me to not have a chance at this. Eleven months will go by super fast and in the meantime, we’ll just travel back and forth.”

While in D.C. to be interviewed for the fellowship, Sotelo was given a tour of the area in which she will be working and living. Apartments are frequently passed from an outgoing fellow to an incoming one, making it possible to find a housing arrangement that includes furniture and dishes.

While excited about the opportunity, Sotelo confessed “a little bit of mixed feelings because there’s kids in sixth grade next year, some are my neighbors, and I hate to miss them.” 

Swanson said the goal is for Sotelo to return to McNeil after completing the fellowship.

“This is what I’ve dedicated my life to. I love it, the learning, the teaching and the students,” said Sotelo. “I’ve been a teacher now almost 30 years and so to take those experiences and share with others is kind of part of the profession. … It’s interesting that people think that perspective is valuable. It’s really validating.”

For more information about the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, visit

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.