Ashland Willis hopes she can inspire the next generation of students in her community like her teachers did for her.
“What inspired me was a good foundation of my primary school teacher, which allowed me to excel in high school and graduate with top honors,” said Willis, a teacher at Tucker Elementary School, a Choctaw Tribal School in Neshoba County.
Willis, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, is one of 66 teachers nationwide to be recognized by the Society of Science and the Public for using STEM in a low-income community.
With the recognition, Willis will be part of the Society’s Advocate Program in which she will mentor and work with students from underrepresented groups and low-income areas to help them to develop STEM projects for science competitions.
Maya Ajmera, the society’s president and CEO said Willis was chosen after a competitive application process.
“Ashland is one of those great lights and beacons of hope for the rest of our country,” she Ajmera said.
Willis received $5,000, with $2,000 for classroom materials, and $3,000 for her to be an advocate for students.
Willis, whose been teaching for eight years, graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor's degree in elementary education with endorsements in math and science.
She plans to use the grant to purchase more STEM supplies for her classroom, so students can complete their science activities at home.
Willis enjoys giving back to her community because she can relate to her students, many of whom speak in their traditional language.
“This is the school I grew up in, now I am back here teaching,” she said. “It makes me feel prideful."
During class, Willis said she tries to make classroom activities interactive by having a lab and providing time for students to conduct research online. She also helps students in the afternoon and plans science fairs.
Students can also participate in TED talks, where they discuss career choices and how to make changes in their communities.
“Making them feel part of their learning in the classroom, I think that's what sets me aside from other teachers,” she said. “I allow the students to be responsible and accountable for their work.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Willis hasn't been able to offer many hands-on activities, but since students have Chromebooks, labs can be completed online.
Willis also wants to be a role model, especially for young women.
“I try to motivate them to keep their options open," she said. "Especially with the science field, there are many different fields they can go into.”