Heading to New Zealand in February to conduct a six month research project, Carmel Elementary School STEM enrichment specialist Merry Willis was selected by the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant recipient.
“I am really excited and honored,” Willis said. “I knew that I was a finalist and had gone through the interview process, but it was still kind of a shock. I was actually on spring break in D.C. when I found out. I did not expect it and I certainly did not think I would get New Zealand, which was my first choice. It was a nice surprise for sure.”
Selected based on academic and professional success and demonstrated leadership position, Willis is one of 45 U.S. citizens given the grant for next school year.
“There are six others going to New Zealand from the U.S. and I am the only one in the southeast. It will be a very interesting experience,” Willis said. “I am excited for what it means for my students at Carmel and other students in Cherokee County. I think it has the potential to foster some really cool international connections.”
She will live in Wellington, New Zealand until June 2017 to observe how technology impacts student learning throughout the county.
“I will conduct a research project that I have designed. My research project will be focused on instructional technology and using what I learn about their uses of instructional technology to develop some teacher professional development resources,” Willis said. “I will work with a supervisor out of Victoria University in Wellington. I will also work with the university taking classes and observing classes there, as well as in primary schools all over New Zealand.”
Willis chose New Zealand for its interesting use of technology, as they have to deal with being remote.
“Their instructional technology is an interesting situation, because they are such a remote part of the world. They really are the last stop for the internet, so they have to deal with being very much a first-world country with less network access than a lot of places. I was intrigued to see how they dealt with that and how they work through that with their schools being really at the forefront of instructional technology and how they use technology in their classrooms to support student learning,” Willis said. “It seems like a really good fit for that project and also gives me an opportunity to do a lot of cross-cultural exchanges without a language barrier, so I can pair up classes in New Zealand and back here at Carmel or other schools in Cherokee County.”
She hopes to bring back resources for Cherokee County teachers and students.
“I am hoping to find some things that are easy to implement and easy to use and make that whole facilitation of a global connection for classrooms easier and really focus on looking at the professional development side of that for teachers and what makes teachers more able to efficiently use technology in their classrooms,” Willis said.
Willis also wants to take her knowledge and unique perspective to New Zealand.
“I have a really good knowledge of instructional ideas for elementary school students in particular and how they can be producers of information and make products that are useful to other people. I have a way of making that accessible to teachers,” Willis said. “I also think I bring an interesting perspective, because of the position I have had; the interconnectivity of the arts and science and technology and how that can be used with the elementary kids to really connect their passions.”
Willis has received numerous honors in her education career, which she began in 2004 at Carmel Elementary School where she previously taught third through fifth-grade.
Recent honors include being named a 2015-16 Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and 2015 Master Trainer, Museum of Aviation National STEM Academy’s STEM Teacher of the Year for 2015-16, Pitsco National Teacher of the Year for 2013-14, 2011 Emerging International Society for Technology in Education Leader, 2011 Carmel Elementary School Teacher of the Year and 2009 National Mickelson ExxonMobil Teacher’s Academy participant.
She is a coach for Carmel Elementary’s Science Olympiad and Academic Teams, sponsors the Technology Club and for three years has served as lead teacher for district’s STEM Cherokee professional development programs. An adjunct professor at Reinhardt University and a Cherokee County Special Olympics Swim Team volunteer coach, Willis also has served on the Regional and State Technology Fair Planning Committees, State National Educational Technology Standards for Students lesson plan development team and Georgia Criterion Referenced Competency Tests Content Review and Data Analysis Teams.
Willis, who has gifted teaching and Teach 21 technology endorsements, earned her Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education degree from Kennesaw State University and Master’s Degree in Educational Technology and Educational Specialist Degree in Technology Management and Administration from Nova Southeastern University.
“I think because I have had such a variety of different positions at Carmel, it has made Carmel stay exciting and interesting to me,” Willis said. “I teach every kid as a part of the specials rotation. It has been the perfect job for me because it allows me to really explore the creative side of teaching and being innovative and teaching engineering to elementary schoolers. That is crazy cool stuff and I get to teach every kid in the school, over 1,000 kids in a week.”
For more information about the Fulbright Program, see the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website at eca.state.gov/fulbright.